Visiting Museums

or : Catherine makes everyone look at her holiday photos

When you’ve worked in museums for a few years you start to look at the displays differently. What sort of lighting have they got on that fragile textile? How did they get that object to hang so beautifully just there? I wonder how much it cost to build that fancy technical thingy? (You can tell I work in the digital team can’t you.)

If you manage to switch off the inner curator and just experience the sheer joy of an immersive experience you know you’ve found a good exhibition. I do still have those moments, and even when I’m ‘off the clock’ I love visiting museums but I think working in them has actually made me a more critical, sometimes perhaps even cranky, museum visitor. Recently I was lucky enough to go to the UK for a holiday and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts after visiting a few institutions purely for pleasure, in the form of some personal reflections on what made my own visitor experiences positive or negative. Besides, it’s been over two weeks back at work and I’m already dreaming about the next trip …

Image: view from above of dinosaur bones and glass cases

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Hands on is always fun

Image: two young children playing with magnetic tiles on board

Making brick patterns at the Museum of Reading

It’s not just the kids that like to play. Grown-ups like to get hands on at museums too; I’m sure I’m not the only one. I visited several museums on my own, and some with family this trip and I always jumped in and tried the activities whenever it didn’t involve physically muscling in on children. Only occasionally did I get odd looks from staff.

Maybe we should be taking advantage of this more when we design our museum programs. While not a new idea I think this is one worth repeating and exploring.  Many museums are great at creating activities for children, but how many do you know that regularly run fun, quirky, or hands on programs for adults? I would love to hear your examples in the comments, I know there are some out there. You can help me compile the next holiday list!

The museums I most enjoyed visiting provided multiple opportunities to play or browse. This included simple building blocks, artworks re-imagined as jigsaw puzzles, digital games, some old fashioned racing competition, dressing up, puppet theatres and touchable objects. In History SA’s museums visitor feedback suggests the same applies. For example, one display we know evokes memories and comments from visitors is the replica ketch at the South Australian Maritime Museum, complete with sails, rigging and cabins you can explore.

Image: young boy carrying large soft building block next to tower of similar blocks

New creations at Boathouse 4, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard


Image: touch screen tablet above large image of map on floor

The #greatmap app at the National Maritime Museum, Royal Museums Greenwich

Digital isn’t always the solution (though sometimes it is)

I work in the Digital Engagement team at History SA and I know the rest of the team will agree with me that putting digital devices into an exhibition for the sake of having a screen or a button or some other fancy looking equipment is not always the answer. Some museums do an amazing job of blending different types of display or interpretation, in others you sometimes wonder what the point of the shiny box in the middle of the room is. Digital is fantastic when it communicates something that it’s difficult to grasp in another format, or enhances our experience in some way. What is it that you want to communicate? What experience do you want your museum visitors to have?

Image: view from above of people in museum display

A fantastic blend of digital, hands on, and old fashioned labels at the Museum of Liverpool.


One of my pet hates this trip was text heavy digital. I’m on holiday; I don’t want to spend all that time reading, unless it’s a good book in a relaxing location. I’m a text-oriented person, I enjoy reading, I work with words, but we all get museum fatigue at times and I found myself actively tuning out when there was too much text on screens. I also saw several examples of too much text becoming a real barrier to young children and non-English speakers attempting to use apps. Do we need to put the instructions in words all the time? Could we do it in pictures? Or some other format?

One place where digital interactives can come to the fore is in sharing audio visual experiences. I spent some time sitting at an audio station in the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool just listening to Blues music. After an action filled morning with the Slavery Remembrance Day march (more below) and absorbing some tragic history in the Museum it was a much-needed still moment for contemplation, and a reminder of something beautiful that rose out of an ugly past.

Image: Three people wearing headphones in front of screens

Audio station at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

Audio in galleries can be a fine balance at times. A long standing pet hate of mine is competing sound tracks in small spaces. It’s not just the audio stations or interactives we need to consider either.  I nearly walked out of what turned out to be an otherwise amazing museum after constant announcements on the PA system meant I couldn’t hear any of the audio content at listening stations in the first five minutes of my visit.

Friendly staff can make or break a visit

I’m not going to name names but there were a couple of occasions where my museum visit started on a bit of a low, or took a steep decline, purely through interactions with grumpy staff. We’re all human, maybe they were just having a bad day, but they certainly didn’t improve mine. On the whole though I would have to say museum people are a friendly, cheerful lot and my negative experiences were far outweighed by happy, helpful people who made visiting a joy. Staff that took the time to chat, or answered questions with a smile had a huge impact on my mood visiting museums, and that included gift shop interactions.

Most of the time I was travelling purely as a tourist and not organising to meet up with any other museum staff. One exception was in Greenwich where I met the lovely Sacha Coward who gave me a personal tour of the National Maritime Museum and we had a wonderful chat about museums and communities, what we do and what we could do.

Which brings me to my next thought …

Social media is a great way to make connections

Museums love social media. It’s a great way to meet other Museum professionals when you’re travelling and don’t already know people.

I’ve been following the International Slavery Museum online for a few years now, and it’s been on my bucket list to visit. Via Twitter I learned that Slavery Remembrance Day would be during my planned trip to the UK, and I booked a visit to Liverpool to coincide. It was without doubt one of the most memorable experiences of my trip, and a humbling occasion.

I tweeted about the day as I knew friends and colleagues would be interested in sharing the experience. After I tagged the Museum on Twitter one of the staff tweeted back and told me to come say hi.

You don’t have to be a museum professional to make connections, and following or checking in at museums has other benefits as well. Seeing what other museum visitors shared on Twitter or Instagram led me to seek things out which otherwise might not have been on my radar. It was also a way of having conversations with people about what I was seeing while I was travelling alone.

Tell me what you really think

I lost track of the number of museums I visited that asked for visitor comments but were out of either paper or pencils, or on one occasion both. Museums can be hectic places and staff always have a lot to do, but I got a bit depressed about how often there were small, easily fixable corners in museums that needed some attention. As a visitor it can start to feel like staff don’t care. I’m sure they do, but I might take a pack of lead pencils with me next time I travel.

One place that had paper and pencils fully stocked, and a plethora of opportunity for visitor feedback on a range of topics, was the Wellcome Collection. This was the first time I’ve visited and I’ll definitely be going back.

My favourite example of visitor feedback at the Wellcome Collection was about memories. It was part of States of Mind: Tracing the Edge of Consciousness, which was a fascinating exhibition. Staff had arranged the comments on a timeline from people whose earliest memory was before they had even turned one year old through to one visitor whose first memory was age eight. We hear a lot about ‘data visualisation’ in this day and age, and this is a fantastic illustration of an ‘analog’ version with visual impact that conveys significant information. A good demonstration of my earlier point that digital isn’t always the solution.

We should all visit more museums!

It’s always nice to step back and think about what we do from a different perspective. It can be easy to forget when you’re slaving away over an eloquent object label (oh yes!) that some visitors have been on the local walking tour all morning and just want a chance to sit down and do something quiet, and others don’t want to stay still and would love the whole physical immersive experience. Visiting other museums without any set professional agenda is an opportunity to step back into those shoes and recapture the wonder and excitement that led us to work in museums in the first place.

Ah London …

A photo posted by Cathy Manning (@cathy_mann) on


  • Jan Perry says:

    I’ll share my museum pics with you Catherine. How many museums did you visit? Have you been to the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold Suffolk and Skibsklarerergaarden in Elsinore? Or the Museum by the sea in Stromness?

    • Catherine Manning says:

      I’ve lost count! Somewhere around 18 I think, but sadly none of the museums you mention. Would love to compare photos Jan.

  • Kate Bolton says:

    A lot of interesting places I have visited have been inspired by another visitor’s picture or comment on social media. I find these often more informative than the PR shots done of a place. I love interactive displays too…remind me to share more about my visit to the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower!

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