Note: This post is part of my “Museums Project“, a collection of 200+ high-concept ideas for museums.
The idea: that too much of our “learning” is really just us taking in information passively and enjoying it. We have a feeling of having learned something, and in a way we have, but in a week it’s gone. Maybe in a few minutes it’s gone.
This is known as “the fluency illusion”.
Aren’t a lot of museums the same way? You walk through, you read some things, you go “Oh wow, I didn’t know that”. And then in maybe a week or so you’re back to not knowing it again.
Maybe you remember the BIG things – how small the Mona Lisa was, or that so-and-so led a double life of housewife and international spy. But generally I think, if one of a museum’s goals is to create some kind of lasting learning for visitors then there’s a lot of wasted opportunity.
“Make It Stick” is probably the most popular book on the science of learning. Instead of expounding their own personal hypotheses, they dig into the trusted studies of how people learn and how they learn the quickest. I could say a lot about the book, but here’s what’s pertinent for this post: you remember stuff a lot better if you are forced to recall it in a way that creates some strain. The actual act of digging in to your memory to find something helps you have better access to it later.
So how might this idea be applied to museums?
Tests? Not many people like tests. But a lot of people like games and trivia and gaining a sense of mastery or accomplishment.
So let’s imagine a museum that has multiple rooms. Perhaps separated by locked doors or some other barriers.
Do you want to see what’s in the next room? Well you have to answer a question about what you’ve just seen. I mean, if you’re not even remembering things a few seconds after you’ve seen them, what’s the point of seeing any more of the museum? Just go home.
The mechanics of the door? Maybe it’s a turnstyle with an RFID reader and you have a bracelet. You can’t see the next room (mystery!) because it’s one of those dogleg type doors that airport restrooms often use. This way only one person can go through at a time. Since you are assigned a unique RFID the turnstyle screen can ask different people different questions. No copying your neighbor!
So now let’s imagine you are in the room and the turnstyle asks you your question. You don’t know the answer so you go back into the room and start looking for it. In the process you end up looking at some things you haven’t seen before (more learning!) and also re-reading some stuff (reinforcement!) until you find your answer. You go back to the turnstyle and select or type the answer and you get to to go to the next room.
Yes you could just google all this stuff. We can’t keep people from cheating one way or another. There’s no prize but pride so it’s their loss if they choose to cheat.
So now you are in the second room. You look around at the stuff and the you go to the turnstyle. You answer the question and move through.
You proceed through a few more rooms similarly.
Then you are in room 10. The turnstyle to room 11 asks you a question that looks familiar. It’s the one they asked in the fourth room! Do you remember it?
Spaced repetition is a key to learning. The museum designer might go a few directions:
- The vistior might be able to call a docent for a lifeline.
- The visitor has to walk back 6 rooms to look up the answers. On their way back to room 10 they have to recall the answers (literally spaced repetition) again. Or, to be more devilish, there are new questions. Or, to be kind, your RFID just unlocks the turnstyle with no question. Or maybe you get to choose “difficulty” level when you start the museum.
- The visitor is NOT permitted to go backwards and has to go through the exit door, leading to maybe a hallway taking them back to room 1. OR maybe it dumps them in a lobby where an alarm goes off and other visitors point, laugh and publicly shame them. OR possibly some dank alley that smells of trash and cigarette butts and their visit is over (not recommended but might be appropriate in some circumstances.)
There’s many ways museums try to get visitors to have more fun by gamifying it through apps, escape-game type adventures, and live reenactment. Are they enjoyable? Probably. But assuming the museum is there to educate in some way, asking “how do we get visitors to learn this stuff”? is probably a better question than “how can we make this more fun?” Fun is the tool. The purpose is the learning. Fun will drive attendence up. Learning will drive importance up.