Avoiding ‘the IKEA effect’. Bringing the collections to life at visitor attractions.

By Jon Young

16th October 2015

A few months ago I ran a workshop amongst visitors to Historic Houses. One participant likened a visit to following his partner around IKEA – “nice enough furniture but not compelling enough to stop me thinking about the café at the end”. The quote was typical of feedback we receive about venues which, though beautifully presented, fail to capture the imagination.

Our recent ALVA Benchmarking survey demonstrated that ‘bringing the subject matter to life’ is the biggest single driver of a positive experience. Many attractions excel in this area; those that don’t, tend to churn out low enjoyment or recommendation. Avoiding ‘the IKEA effect’ is more important than ever.

We are often asked for examples of best practice in bringing collections to life. I’ve picked out a few themes below using insights from our visitor research.

1. Living not looking: An effective route to ‘bringing the subject matter to life’ is through transporting people back into the past. In our ALVA benchmarking survey, the Imperial War Museum’s Churchill War Rooms is rated as one of the best. Their website describes the Map Room as “exactly as it was left on the day the lights were switched off in 1945”, clearly communicating a time-travelling experience to prospective visitors. Stonehenge (with new visitor centre), Hampton Court Palace and most National Trust properties also tend to excel at this.

Venues are most effective at ‘time-travelling’ experiences when they allow visitors to live in - rather than just look at - the past. This often requires a combination of stimulus, stories and captivating curation. Simply recreating the setting is rarely enough. In another workshop a participant used the analogy of a trip to the theatre to describe the ideal museum experience. “You wouldn’t go to a play to admire the set would you? It’s an important backdrop but it’s the acting and story-telling that makes the experience” The ‘IKEA visitor’ was referring to a beautifully designed 18th century dining room cordoned off with a rope. There was a placard with a short description, but very little else.

2. Sensory and experiential: ‘Time-travelling’ obviously won’t work with every type of visitor attraction, particularly art galleries or museums with diverse collections (or zoos!). Another trend is towards the sensory and experiential. The National Gallery’s Soundscape exhibition introduced sounds that would be associated with the scenes in the paintings. A friend of mine who struggles to connect fully with art, told me this was extremely helpful in helping her understand exhibits she would normally have admired but forgotten a few days later (overcoming ‘the IKEA effect’ maybe). For a similar reason, the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition – where the sounds and smells of nature were physically brought to Burlington House – has remained in my memory almost two years after the visit.

The Hayward Gallery’s recent Decision exhibition demonstrates the power of playing with our emotions. As someone who is a little claustrophobic and doesn’t like heights, I certainly experienced a range of outcomes when entering through a (very long) pitch black tunnel and exiting via a slide!

3. Varied communication: An important step in bringing collections to life is to make them relevant for the visitor. We each have unique triggers and different learning styles. Varied communication is essential for maximising engagement (and distracting us from thoughts about the café). The British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition was a great example of how varied communication brings an experience to life. Whether through a thumb-bone ‘humanising’ King John, Bill Clinton giving present-day substance, an amusing Horrible Histories film, or a host of original artefacts, the exhibition brought 800 years of history to life way before you actually got to the Magna Carta at the end.

Modern society presents a multitude of distractions and demands, and technology has created the habitual desire for instant gratification. The key to bringing collections to life is nudging visitors away from this mind-set. The growth of wellness tourism, digital detox and the slow movement all demonstrate a growing desire for people to achieve this. As natural havens of escape, visitor attractions are well placed to meet this need, and our ALVA results prove that many are excelling.
If you’re not already part of either of our benchmarking surveys do get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

You may also be interested in our blog Consumer Delight: creating 'wow' moments.

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