The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam houses the world’s largest collection of paintings, drawings and letters by Vincent Van Gogh. It receives 1.6 million visitors each year of whom 85% are from outside the Netherlands. But its building buildings were not designed for this level of traffic so, to improve the visitor experience, the Museum has been working on an ambitious project of expansion and improvement. The project included the redevelopment of a major part of the building to provide a new and improved visitor entrance and a complete re-presentation of the collection. Alongside this project the Education team took the decision to re-develop it’s already popular multimedia guide. They started with two very clear goals:
- To improve the visitor experience – Making the multimedia guide one of the most important tools in its education mix to help international visitors to look at art and get an enhanced experience
- Increase usage – To ensure more visitors have this improved experience
In this situation the standard response is to commission a new product, often filled with the newest rich media – but the Museum knew that both they and many of their peers around the world had been down that path many times before and not seen the change for which they hoped. Instead the museum chose to innovate the process in order to transform not just the product but the overall experience and service: to change what they did in order to change what they got.
A three year research and development process has been set up in partnership with two digital agencies, to develop a service which will deliver a sustainable offer by increasing the visitor experience and usage, allowing the museum the flexibility to take as much or as little of the development of the project internally.
One of the main questions of the museum was: what would add value for our visitors’ visit to our new collection presentation? What experience, what content, would transform their understanding and enjoyment?
Initial research confirmed the value of the guide format – Visitors who used a guide had a better experience of both the art and the museum – but it also highlighted a number of key factors that were to inform many of the decisions about the new experience:
- A significant proportion of the visitors who would value the experience and results of taking a guide either held misconceptions about the offer or had little idea of how the offer might help them
- Visitors felt they already had a good level of understanding of Van Gogh but that understanding was often based on myth and hype.
- Visitors want to feel more connected emotionally and personally to the artist THROUGH his work
- Visitors were discerning about the value of different types of content – impatient with novelty or complexity that got in the way of their time with Van Gogh’s works and delighted by simple compelling content that engaged them emotionally and intellectually.
- Visitors wanted to feel more in-control of their experience
- As a popular museum, the visitors were aware of having to queue for both entry and the guide
- The guide could cause significant crowding around paintings
The team began by developing a concept that brought visitors closer to the artist and his art by addressing – and overturning – the myths. The surprise, delight, emotional depth and learning were to be delivered through revealing that the real story is even more compelling than the myths. This idea was to be used as a thread through all aspects of the experience and content – digital and physical – including marketing and communications to ensure that the guide was easy to understand, buy and use.
Each area of the experience and content was designed with this in mind and tested with users at every stage. Results included, for example:
- An elegant, pared back and intuitive interface that visitors are able to use with minimal instruction reducing handout time to 30 seconds and consequently easing queuing and staffing cost per user
- Experience options and content choices structured and named based on self-identified visitor needs – ‘I want to explore at leisure’ for example – rather than museum themes or naming conventions
- A quiz in the queue that challenged visitors understanding of Van Gogh and reveals that there might be more to Van Gogh and his art than at first appeared
- Communications that focussed on how the guide would help the visitor rather than simply announcing the existence of the product
- The script, tone of voice and interactives are all focussed on bringing visitors up close to Vincent’s work, his motivation and thoughts. Complex production techniques were dismissed in favour of simplicity, clarity and emotional engagement
- Interactives are pared back to offer simple ways to encourage visitors to look at the works and then play with ideas and techniques – such as mixing colours on the device or shifting or screening the visitors view of specific works
- Evocative projections on to the floor that encourage visitors to step back and look across rooms to see patterns and make connections whilst simultaneously reducing congestion close to the paintings
The content and experience has been designed as an integral part of the new collection presentation. Careful consideration has been given to the physical mapping of the story in the space – choosing where to tell which story and integrating static interpretation and interactives (such as the Touch Van Gogh app) to ensure both visitor and museum needs for comfortable visitor flow are achieved and ensuring the storyline would still stand as works go on loan or come back from loans or conservation.
The outcome of the project was always going to be a multimedia guide in 10 languages delivered on museum devices and via a downloadable app (due in 2015). Nothing new there. However, this time the VGM wanted to take a different look at the content, the interface and the way that the whole service could fit into the visitor experience to make it truly frictionless. The new experience launched at the end of November and we have already seen an increase in the number of users of around 30%. Evaluation of the quality of the visitor experience will take place shortly but already visitor comments suggest significant improvement with visitors telling us they they are noticing more more details and emotionally touched by looking at paintings while hearing Van Gogh talk about his ideas.