September 10, 2019 • Paul Woolf
We’ve all been to museums of various shapes and sizes. Some are huge, like the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. or the Louvre in Paris. Some are tiny, like the Warley Museum in West Yorkshire, England, which is contained in an old red phone booth. The Museum of Clean in Pocatello, Idaho, is dedicated to all things clean, including a collection of 1,000 vacuum cleaners and exhibits dedicated to tubs and toilets. One of my personal favorites, which unfortunately shut down recently, was the Currywurst Museum in Berlin, around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie.
Many brands and companies have decided to invest in a museum to celebrate their heritage and house their artifacts in a secure, dedicated, accessible facility. Caterpillar, Harley Davidson and Hershey are three of the more famous brand museums open to tourists and fans.
The company museum business has evolved over the years. A niche that was once just made up of static exhibits has become state-of-the-art, with interactive experiences designed to engage visitors and tell a compelling story about a brand or company.
Is a museum right for your company? Is it the right time to invest in a museum facility and design your museum experience?
Here are seven questions you should answer before you grab a shovel or pack up your corporate artifacts.
A museum makes sense for many reasons, but leaders rarely reach a consensus about these reasons. It could be to capitalize on the enthusiasm of fans and become a focus for brand heritage tourism. It might provide a means to share your substantial heritage in a visible, compelling way, or to educate employees and recruits about your brand or company’s values and journey. It could even be to impress customers and provide a permanence and gravitas that exudes confidence. Or all of the above. Regardless, it’s important that the leaders planning the museum to agree at the start of the project on the reasons and their relative priority.
It’s vital to know who you want to have visit the company museum. Is it open to the public, or reserved for employees and invited guests? Many organizations, such as Ferguson, use their visitor centers for receptions and as an educational tool. Using the facility for onboarding or training is also common. If it’s open to the public, you need to ask who will come and if vision is strong enough to attract these people. For public-facing museums in particular, market research and insights into potential traffic are an important part of ensuring your facility is viable. Some, such as Coca-Cola, charge admission; others, such as Cadbury, not only charge admission but also have amusement attractions for families—a true tourist destination near Birmingham, England.
Location is usually straightforward, as most corporate visitor centers and museums are near the headquarters or on another company site. In some cases, existing buildings are transformed into visitor centers. In others, landmarks such as the home of the company founder are moved or rebuilt on the corporate campus to create the museum.
Marketing is primarily a factor for a public-facing exhibit, but even employee-only visitor centers face issues in building awareness. A common complaint heard by global organizations with multiple offices is that most employees don’t experience the benefits of a company museum unless they happen to travel to headquarters. A company can address this complaint with a virtual tour of the museum so that far-flung employees can take part in the experience. A good example is the work by Johnson & Johnson with its virtual museum, which tackles women’s role in building the company.
Piling a load of artifacts and displays into a space does not make for an effective museum or visitor center. A museum needs a cohesive and compelling story, built around various themes that visitors will find interesting and engaging.
Related to the previous question, it helps to imagine what types of comments your first visitors will make as they exit your facility. Putting yourself in their shoes can help you shape the experience. Will it be hugely interactive, or more static? Does it need to keep the interest of different audiences, such as children, parents or the elderly? Developing visitor personas is one way to clearly understand what someone might want to see or experience, and the potentially different takeaways of visitors.
Planning a visitor center or company museum involves substantial upfront investment and ongoing costs for security, upkeep, and staffing. It’s important to have a long-term plan and vision for how the facility will evolve, addressing issues such as how frequently you’ll refresh exhibits, when you’ll add new features or enhancements to the facility, and what to do if attendance doesn’t meet expectations (or exceeds expectations by far).
By carefully addressing these questions, you’ll be well on the way to developing a superior visitor center or company museum. If you need help at any point, please contact us. We’ve done a lot of museums, of all shapes and sizes. We’d love to help.