I’m currently on holiday in London for two weeks. Of course, as a DC native living in Nashville, I miss the capital’s near-infinite supply of museums, so I’m doing my best to see as many of London’s amazing free museums as possible. While most of the larger institutions (Tate, British Museum, National Gallery, etc.) could easily merit a few dedicated days, the only museum that I’ve visited more than once so far is the Wellcome Collection.
This place is so delightfully unique. Billing themselves as the “free visitor destination for the incurably curious,” the Wellcome Collection is built around the over one million objects collected by Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). Particularly during the last part of his life, Wellcome obsessively collected objects from all over the world relating to life, death, birth, and medicine. While all these objects could easily form an interesting set of galleries in an average museum setting, the Wellcome Collection uses them to dynamically explore “the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future.”
I could go on for hours about the amazing ways this museum uses Wellcome’s objects to provoke reflection and dialogue on the big puzzles of human existence, but instead I’ll just point out one small thing I really appreciated:
In their “Visitor Care Statement,” the Wellcome Collection promises to “actively seek, listen to, monitor and respond to our visitors’ feedback, comments and suggestions.” As part of the permanent Medicine Man exhibit, the museum uses an Instagram call-to-post to provoke #latergram reflection on the many strange and curious objects displayed by theme in the gallery.
While it’s always a good idea to give visitors a prompt and the museum’s handles to facilitate sharing their experience on social media, the staff at Wellcome takes the social experience a step further. Instagrammed responses to the prompt are printed and displayed them on clipboards on the wall at the end of the exhibit. Medicine Man is an homage to the Cabinet of Curiosity, and the Instagram posts are displayed in neat rows as if they were a collection themselves.
The prompt, “This object makes me feel….,” is also apt, allowing visitors to react with humor (as in the case of the visitor who wrote “These phallic amulets make me feel inadequate”) or serious reflection (as in the case of the visitor who wrote “this object makes me feel glad my grandfather survived WW1. A similar lucky black cat is tucked inside his Army issued book of scripture”).
But there are even more ways this set-up fits into the focus of the exhibit. Medicine Man asks you to consider the evolution of science, belief, and popular opinion. At a case of dozens of bone saws lined up in chronological order, the audio guide gives two historical and one contemporary first-hand account of doctors preparing to amputate a limb. Another audio track supplements a terrifying Victorian anti-masturbation device with a discussion on the evolution of views on male masturbation. You can dive into changing ideas about tattoos when you decide to find out more about the tattooed pieces of human skin on display. Likewise, the call-to-post at the end of the exhibit asks you to add one more perspective to the timeline–your own reactions to these objects and the histories behind them.
Of course, it would be easy to use a tablet or other screen to show the latest posts on the #museumfeels hashtag, but printing out the posts makes other visitors’ feelings about the objects seem more significant and worth taking a few extra minutes in the exhibit to read and absorb. It also avoids disrupting the great atmosphere created by the dim lighting and wood paneling on the walls.
This is a great example of mission-focused social media and consistent exhibit/museum branding to keep in mind as you develop your social presence and your visitor feedback systems.