The Museum Experience Gap

Mark Walhimer Designing Museum Experiences book, Future of Museums, Museum Digital Revolution Leave a Comment

Businesses fail because the assumptions on which the organization has been built and is being run no longer fit reality.

– Peter Drucker, Harvard Busienss Review, September – October 1994
LACMA × Snapchat: Monumental Perspectives | ¡Vendedores, Presente! by Ruben Ochoa


As museums slowly reopen and we all start to reenter social situations, museums and museum exhibitions have taken on new meaning and importance. Museums have the power and the responsibility to engage audiences in transformative dialogue about civil society, civic engagement, and personal meaning.  

COVID-19 has forever changed museums and the museum experience. The museum experience now starts with online digital experiences (not another website). The experience visitor thread continues in-person and events and continues online experiences continuing post the in-person experience.   These new museum omniexperices have the power to change people and change communities in new and profound ways.

Per Visit (Online Experience) > In-Person Visit (Physical and Digital) > Post Visit (Online) > Digital and In-Person Events to Drive Repeat Visitation Online and In-Person.

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Integrated Museum Digital Physical Experiences

The Museum Experience Gap

“31% of museums admitted they had no digital strategy”

Knight Foundation Digital Readiness and Innovation in Museums Report

The experience gap between what museums are providing (in-person experiences and digital experiences) and for-profit businesses are providing is widening. Unless museums (art museums, science museums, aquariums, zoos, history centers, children’s museums) quickly get ahead of the widening divide museums will have lost their relevance to large groups of people.

Museums are non-profit mission-based businesses. This is often lost on museums, museums are a business, albeit non-profit business. COVID-19 has taught us the Netflix is a competition for museum audience attention, “good-enough” is no longer good enough post COVID-19. Museums must understand and provide content (both online digital and in-person physical) equal to others in the marketplace.

Numbers Game

Often museum stakeholders approach policymakers for federal and state funding and the first question from the policymaker is “show me your numbers”, meaning how many people are you reaching? The math often does not equate to the policy maker’s need for the level of impact. A museum reaching 40,000 visitors a year with an annual operating cost of $1M is $25 per visitor. If the admission cost is $7 that is $18 that needs to be raised for each visitor.

I am part of a National Science Foundation grant regarding the future of science museums. In my research for the NSF project, I could not find any museums with an online presence equal to online influencers in a similar realm. As an example Mark Rober a former NASA staff has the following 19M. These are numbers that will get and keep policymakers attention, this is the future of museums in understanding and aligning with influencer culture and reaching larger numbers of people that show impact to policymakers.

I often feel that museums are “Preaching to the Choir”, marketing and reaching those already in their demographic. The challenge and the opportunity are in reaching those outside the “museum” demographic, often people of color, often lower socio-economic groups, and often younger Generation Z and Generation A.

Ok Boomer

I was born in 1964 making me a Boomer. I am of the demographic of many museum senior staff. I have a museum consultancy and am dependent on revenue from museums for consulting work. I recently learned the above first hand. I currently have a Twitter following of 13,000 plus followers, but I have been consistently losing followers over the last year. Until I realized that as important as my messages may be, I still need to reach audiences through engagement, this is the popular / mission balance, whereas before I was tweeting 80% mission-based information (my firm is for-profit, but one hundred percent of our clients are mission-based non-profits) and 20% popular culture I am returning to 65% popular culture and 35% mission-based information and I am seeing my following grow.

A criticism of Boomers is we are Sociopaths, unable to see how our behavior affects and impacts others. We Boomers need to see the impact of our actions and share with others, or soon there may be nothing to share.

The Metaphysical Delema

“Not for us”

A museum director’s response to a discussion of the inclusion of the Tik-Tok Generation (Generations Z and Generation A).

Maybe there are segments of museums that can continue to operate without adopting to digital experiences, but the percentage of the 35,000 museums in the USA that can continue without digital is small. This is not a “nice to have”, this change is mandatory.

“You are asking us to learn a new language”

A museum director’s response to trying Tik-Tok. Here is the metaphysical dilemma and the central issue

Sharing Authority

Yes, learning a new “language” such as Tik-Tok is difficult for us Boomers to learn and often cringe-worthy embarrassing. But to capture new audiences and expand the primary mission of museums as places of personal meaning, community impact, and civil society, we must relinquish part of our authority and learn new digital skills. The issue of museum staff sharing authority with audiences in museums is a roadblock to audience inclusion. To attract and accept more people to museums we need to be open to sharing authority with them. We need to attract the people who dislike museums and be open to understanding them.

We Boomers must learn new skills to attract all audiences, and create an impact for all communities. With museums reopening we have a window of time to change museums, but we must move quickly and with new attitudes.

As a white male in my fifties, I have learned that there are things that I can say to other white people my age that Black people “cannot” say. This is important to understanding how we white Boomers can amplify the voices of people of color and those that are disadvantaged.


Museums are currently in a position of catching up to for-profit businesses in the digital experience economy. They have an opportunity to lead rather than follow through rethinking the museum business model to be a hybrid of online digital and in-person physical experiences. In the same way that Netflix moved from a mailed DVD business model to a streaming digital business model, museums have the same need to change.

Yes, museums are in competition with Netflix for audience attention. Simply because museums are non-profit and mission-driven does not give them a “superpower”, museums still compete for the attention of audiences in the marketplace. The sooner museums understand that they are competing for the attention of audiences, the greater their chance of success in the changing digital experience economy. It is the rule of early adopters, those that adopt early have the risk of making a poor decision, and they also have the benefit of greater market share as the market grows.


  1. ‘OK, boomer’: What’s behind millennials’ growing resentment for their predecessors?
  2. Small Museums Are Stealing the Show on TikTok
  3. Museuem Learning Hub
  4. Museums for Digital Learning
  5. Mark Rober YouTube Channel 19M Followers
  6. LACMA × Snapchat: Monumental Perspectives
  7. Designing Museum Experiences book by Mark Walhimer
  8. Digital.Gov Customer Experience Toolkit

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