To many actively involved in the museum industry, the recognized definition of museum is changing - and fast.
It is no secret that over the past several years, our public's imagination has been hijacked by the 500-channel cable television universe, big budget special effects films, video games and simulators, the internet, theme parks, shopping malls, themed restaurants and much more. It turns out that instead of becoming the Information Age, we have become the Entertainment Society.
In the past, a museum's attendance was relatively unimportant - but not anymore. Earned revenue from admissions, retail and food service has become a critical source of funding at a time of significantly increased operating costs and reduced government and private funding. All this comes at a time of fierce competition for the public's time and imagination. The challenge is how to build museum attendance while maintaining the highest standards of scholarship.
As a result, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and in exhibition galleries all across North America, immersive environments are re-inventing the definition of museum and leading the change from collection-based institutions to experience- based institutions. Here, objects or the material culture of museums are not being supplanted - they are being given context and used as part of a great compelling story that educates audiences and leaves them wanting more.
In April of this year, The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened its doors in Springfield, Illinois. Developed as a collaboration between the State of Illinois, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and BRC Imagination Arts, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is a re-invention of today's standard museum, as it utilizes 21st century technology to bring 19th century history to life.
While traditional museums often design exhibits of static, glass enclosed displays, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum features more than 50,000 square feet (15,240 sq. meters) of immersive The Best in Heritage 2005 49 "experience" exhibits, special effects theatres and displays of original artifacts that plunge visitors into Lincoln's life and times. Advising the design team was a panel of over 36 top presidential and Civil War-era scholars and historians to develop the content for the museum and its exhibits. In addition to these scholars, a review panel of school teachers was engaged.
As a result of this new way of looking at a museum experience, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has achieved much higher than expected attendance. Just two months after opening its doors, they welcomed their 100,000th visitor. (By comparison, the most well-attended presidential museum only sees 300,000 per year). They are giving money back to the state because they have a higher per cap than anticipated. The surrounding area has also seen an economic boom of over 40from previous years during the same time period. All of the historical sites in the surrounding area are expecting the greatest attendance they have ever had. And none of this comes at the cost of preservation, research, scholarship or accuracy.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has set the stage for experiential museums across the world by blending scholarly accuracy with world class entertainment. The public is ready for a new realm in museums. The question is whether designers, educators and museum professionals around the world are ready to engage in this type of departure from the status quo of casework and "dead things in boxes?"
For more information on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, please see www.lincolnlibraryandmuseum.com and alplm.org.
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