8 lessons to learn from British museums

Paris has the Louvre, Orsay and Centre Georges Pompidou. London has Tate Modern, V&A and Natural History Museum: two very different cities with two very different approaches to museums.

But they share a few common points: their museums are extremely well attended (9.72 million visitors for the Louvre and 5.32 million for Tate Modern in 2012) and are, in both cases, at the heart of the tourism offering.

During a recent trip to London – taking advantage of a few beautiful Indian summer days – I visited all three above-mentioned museums. Here I share some of my observations, trying to find the reasons for their success.

V&A Dining Room

V&A Dining Room

  1. British museums are FREE and they make it clear; it’s everywhere: in tourist brochures, posters, signage, etc;
  2. Very smooth entrance experience (security, doors, etc) and control, making the museum very inviting, almost like an extension of the public space it sits on;
  3. Access to the museums is part of the experience: Exhibition Road for V&A and Natural History Museum and Millennium Bridge for Tate Modern, ensuring a strong integration within the city and association with the destination;
  4. Visitor flow is organized around deconstructed and limited collections displayed in clearly themed rooms, keeping it entertaining with elements of surprise and the feeling of ‘flipping’ through collections;
  5. Paid exhibitions are spread-out in the building with attractive dedicated retail outlets aimed at ‘selling’ these exhibitions and allowing for last-minute impulse buy;
  6. A number of well designed donation boxes are strategically located throughout the building with ‘suggested’ donation amounts: a very clever way of substituting entrance fee by relying on visitor’s gratefulness in front of such ‘free’ content. This is probably the best motivation for the museum to look after its visitors, as the donation revenue will be directly proportional to the visitors’ satisfaction!
  7. Huge café with good looking self-service concept, taking advantage of the building architectures, views, etc – Have you seen the dining room at V&A? It’s amazing!
  8. Free wifi everywhere, which means that local creative youth takes ownership of the space; museums become cool places to hang-out with a nice all-but-stuffy vibe.

For all of us museum people, these are great lessons.  British museums are doing a remarkable job and they are rightfully highly regarded overseas.

Personally I would like to see a mix of British and French influence in the design of new museum experience in Asia. With increasing French influence and strong historical British heritage, Hong Kong could be the place where this explosive mix will happen. Watch out for M+ and the proposed project for the Central Police Station!

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