Great Visitor Experiences Make Great Museums

This is the third in a series of five blog posts exploring the examples of prisons, labor camps and other sites of memory that have become museums. These posts were researched and written by Erica Mollon, Master’s student in Historic Preservation and Urban Planning at Columbia University, during her internship with CHwB in Tirana, Albania.

Through the work of foundations, concerned citizens, and dedicated researchers, many important sites of memory become memorials or museums. In this post, we look at several international examples to understand what makes for a great visitor experience in person or online.

Ellis Island, USA | Tenement Museum, USA

Interactive exhibit at The Tenement Museum. Photo courtesy of wNYC

Interactive exhibit at The Tenement Museum. Photo courtesy of wNYC

Images, oral histories, videos, and artifacts tell the U.S. immigrant story at Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Visitors at Ellis Island are encouraged to research ancestors or record their own story about their experience with and at the island. Select oral histories and other research materials are available on their website. At the Tenement Museum, you can only see the museum with a guided tour because the goal is to create conversations in which the visitor explores their role in creating a better America. Interactive experiences include collecting artifacts and finding out more about them using surface computers, simple recreation activities, and discussing the research conducted by museum staff. In addition, most visits incorporate two apartments in their ‘as found’ condition, in order to include visitors in the preservation dialogue. This blended approach has proved incredibly popular, with tours often selling out days in advance.

Anne Frank House, Netherlands | Staro Sajmište, Serbia | Sighet, Romania

Virtual tour of the Anne Frank house on their website.  Photo courtesy of Anne Frank Stichting

Virtual tour of the Anne Frank house on their website. Photo courtesy of Anne Frank Stichting

The Anne Frank House and Staro Sajmište both have excellent websites that act as virtual museums. Visitors get a sense of the space though models, maps and panoramic photos while the narrative of the memories are told through current and archival photos, videos, interviews, and oral histories. The Anne Frank House also hosts an exhibit on Cultural Institute powered by Google, which brings that experience to the Google platform. You can also explore Sighet virtually on their website or by purchasing a disc.

Auschwitz, Poland

National exhibit: Slovakia, Block 16. Photo courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

National exhibit: Slovakia, Block 16. Photo courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

Having a variety of experiences ensures that diverse visitors all have an opportunity to learn and have a meaningful experience at the museum. At Auschwitz, the blend of interpreted spaces and exhibition galleries ensures variety. Exhibit spaces include artwork by former prisoners or about the Holocaust, and each country that had victims at the concentration camp has a gallery. A guide using a special audio system allows the museum to remain quiet without compromising the benefits of a guided tour. Auschwitz also combines various preservation techniques that allow visitors to see the way buildings were while still appreciating the destruction and ruination of the site.

Eastern State Penitentiary, USA | Gulag Perm-36, Russia

In "Hands on History" visitors get the chance to interact with Eastern State Penitentiary in fun ways, like learning to open the large front gates.  Photo courtesy of  easternstate.org

In “Hands on History” visitors get the chance to interact with Eastern State Penitentiary in fun ways, like learning to open the large front gates. Photo courtesy of easternstate.org

Perhaps the museum with the most diversity is Eastern State Penitentiary. Here, visitors can choose to participate in a variety of experiences including an audio tour starring former prison staff and prisoners and narrated by a famous actor. Using this audio guide, visitors experience an intimate walking tour that allows them to create their own circuit by skipping stops or taking a deep dive into certain topics. There are also hands-on experiences that typically take about 5 minutes or less that engage visitors to learn by doing and are simple enough for children to participate but entertaining for adults. The museum also hosts rotating art exhibits whose themes tend to reflect on crime, punishment, and the victim. However, perhaps the most well-known special event at the museum is its annual Haunted House, which takes place during the evenings in October. While mostly fun, it does provide some insight into the museum’s past, while introducing the museum to people (on average 1,000 per evening) who may otherwise not have known about it. Other museums, like Gulag Perm-36 also use special events, like outdoor music festivals, to draw new visitors to their site.

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