“It was just stuff in glass cages” The importance of Things To Do at attractions

24/11/2014 By Jon Young

24 November 2014

In April this year, we embarked on the #visit100 challenge – a quest to visit 100 unique venues, exhibitions and events across the UK, taking a flattering selfie at each. Aside from perfecting the selfie (a skill few of us have managed), the main aim of #visit100 is to add granularity to our findings from the ALVA Visitor Experience Benchmarking Survey.

A consistent driver of a positive experience is ‘what there is to do’ at a venue. The presentation of objects with written interpretation can be enough for specialists (the ALVA ‘topic interest’ segment), but expectations are much higher for ‘tick box’ or ‘broadening horizons’ visitors, particularly those who are new to the subject area.

Cultural venues are no longer the main custodians of the information they exhibit. So, the desire for ‘things to do’ is in part driven by the availability or ‘democratisation’ of knowledge via the internet and handheld devices. One of my first #visit100 trips was to Flamsteed House in Royal Observatory Greenwich. Between Herons Quay and Mudchute on my DLR ride to Greenwich, I had processed enough information about Sir Christopher Wren to use it as my specialist subject on Mastermind. Wind back ten years, and this would not have been possible. The modern-day visitor is equipped with far more knowledge, or at the very least knows that they can easily access it should they want to.

The internet – via the rise of social media - has also acted as a catalyst for FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Facebook check-ins and photo uploads allow us to shape how we are seen (our personal brand), and create a desire for our friends or followers to be seen similarly. Through creating and promoting tick-box experiences, attractions are in a great position to harness FOMO. You only need to look at the queue of people waiting by the Meridian Line (even though the actual line extends into the park below) to see FOMO’s power.

The recession has also played a part. VisitEngland’s report on domestic leisure trends for the next decade talks about Cultural Capital – a movement away from transactional experiences to learning new skills. Trendswatch by the American Alliance of Museums makes a similar point.

Venues continue to be presented in multi-sensory ways, opening the door to a more immersive experience. ‘The Rain Room’ at the Barbican and ‘David Bowie is’ at the V&A are great examples of how this can be done using technology. Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy demonstrated how it can be done using the sights and smells of nature.

Our #visit100 experiences have revealed lots of good examples of ‘things to do’. At National Trust’s Baddesley Clinton, our director’s children got dressed up in period clothes (although he didn’t). At Thinktank Birmingham, the Science Garden taught me about science in hands-on ways that school failed to and the internet never could.

But ‘things to do’ isn’t just for children, and it doesn’t have to be too interactive. The British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition invited visitors to sketch their own comics, and entries were put on the wall. Down the road, The Wellcome Collection’s A to Z of the Human Condition sought entries for each letter of the alphabet - onsite and online. Another installation in Sensing Spaces was made solely of plastic piping that visitors had created themselves. At the National Gallery, visitors are invited to take a photo mimicking the subjects of the collections.

So should all venues be packed with things to do? Well, given their importance in driving a positive visit, it’s a good place to start. But ‘things to do’ is just one way of generating deeper engagement. During my #visit100 travels, two guided tours developed my understanding of impressionism (at National Gallery) and encouraged me to buy a print (at Tate). Staff interaction taught me what fur is on the Queen’s crown at the Tower of London (it’s stoat) and the whole of Queen Victoria’s family tree at Kensington Palace.

The challenge is to get people to think about objects or exhibits, to help them understand their context. It’s about telling stories, taking visitors back in time, delving beyond the case or room they are stored in.