What the THEA Awards Suggest About the Future of Museum Design

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, March 17th, 2014

De Vuurproef, Het Spoorwegmuseum

The 2014 THEA Awards have been announced, and three very different museums are among those recognized this year with Outstanding Achievement Awards. On the surface, these three museums could not be more different, but they are united by something that transcends their location or material focus. De Vuurproef Het Spoorwegmuseum, Titanic Belfast, and the Philippines’ Mind Museum are each taking the museum visitor experience into uncharted territory.

If your vision of a museum includes dull information, static art and artifacts arranged in display cases, and theming that is loose at best, you’re not alone. But the next wave of museums will blow your mind in terms of their use of storytelling, immersion, cohesive theming, and technology to elevate the museum visitor experience to a whole new plane. This year’s THEA awards are honoring three of the best from around the world.

De Vuurproef, Het Spoorwegmuseum Queue

De Vuurproef, Het Spoorwegmuseum (which translates literally to “The Railway Museum”) is located in the Netherlands. The museum is dedicated to celebrating the Dutch Railway tradition. If the thought of a railroad themed museum makes you yawn, De Vuurproef will completely change your mind. The designers use a 4D simulator that takes guests on virtual train rides through different terrains and time periods. There are interactive components that allow guests to slow down, speed up, or stop the train. The interactivity and effects were achieved on a remarkably small budget, and yet manage to bring a theme park level of excitement to what could be a very dry topic.

The Mind Museum

The Mind Museum, which is the Philippines’ first world-class science and technology center, combines theming and interactive design at a master level. The Museum is 4900 square feet of space dedicated to five galleries on science and technology. More than 250 highly interactive exhibits engage visitors and invite them to explore, participate, and play. Each of the galleries, including The Ten Beautiful Experiments and the Philippine Science Hall, are organized around stories that explore the shared human desire to understand nature through art, science, and technology. Themed passageways, called Nature’s Webways, connect each of these and are themselves themed exhibits using art, lighting, and sound. The Mind Museum offers a master class in artful design and execution of science museums.

The Mind Museum Universe Gallery

The Titanic Belfast exhibit explores the ship’s familiar story at a scale and depth unseen in any other Titanic attraction. Titanic has been a resounding success, drawing in more than half a million visitors in just five months and coming to stand as a successful example of efforts to revitalize tourism to Belfast and Northern Ireland. With nine immersive galleries, exhibit space, themed dining, and conference facilities, Titanic Belfast was a massive undertaking.

Titanic Belfast

The exhibit itself takes an immersive look at Edwardian Belfast and builders, passengers, and scientists at the heart of the Titanic story from constructing the ship to deconstructing the story of the wreck. The experience team used a wide range of interpretive techniques ranging from oral histories to visual media to bring their extensive research to life. The attraction includes a dark ride through the shipyard, a 3D cave walk through the ship, and rare HD footage of the wreck taken in the 1980s.

Inside View Titanic Belfast

Each of these museums is notable, because it took a bold and unusual approach to bringing its content to life for visitors. Instead of simply curating and presenting information, the teams and designers behind these museums imagined how they could transform learning by focusing on creating a deeper and more engaging experience. By borrowing from some of the best techniques in broader entertainment design, they together have created a body of work that’s likely to transform how we think about the museum experience. From theme park style thrill rides to complex and multisensory storytelling, this year’s THEA winners have definitively stated that today’s museums are blazing new paths.

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