Even before COVID-19 changed the landscape, cultural institutions were already searching for fresh ways to utilise their outside space. For some, it’s about playing to their strengths, making the most of every inch of their site, or acknowledging the role of their environment and community in their story.
For all, there is another ongoing push. In these digital days, making the outdoors integral encourages people to visit in real life: the sights, smells and emotions of nature are elements of experiences that simply cannot be recreated at home, even with the most cutting edge technology.
While many other US museums remained closed during the pandemic, it was solace for many people to be able to continue to visit The Huntington’s vast, inspiring outdoor gardens.
Where many institutions face the challenge of improving their outdoor approach, at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens the aim is to encourage indoor exploration, as well as connect the dots between the two.
Over 70% of visitors are there to experience the gardens. Indeed, says Christine Murray, Art Processors Content Director, "Some visitors are entirely unaware that the art museum and library collections are even on the site."
Christine has delivered a digital strategy for the cultural centre, aiming to encourage greater visitor understanding and exploration of the whole site. "The library and museum are gems that everyone needs to know about," believes Christine. "There are so many amazing stories here. We've weaved the indoors and outdoors together through narrative, helping people see beyond the gardens."
So how do you create a seamless experience inside and out? At 130 acres in all, The Huntington site is vast so it’s not enough to create themed tours. It would be a push to criss-cross the library, museum and gardens in one visit.
But the split between first-time visitors and repeat visitors is an even 50%, so there was the opportunity not only to guide people but also encourage them back on further visits by piquing their interest in additional exhibits.
To help people understand the full possibilities for exploration, we guided the content team at the library, museum and gardens to search out connections across the three collections. Together, we developed stories revealing those links, then we created five audio stops each for the gardens, library and art museum which all interlink and encourage deeper reflection.
Identifying engaging stories to fuel each moment is fundamental, but it’s not easy to find them when there are so many resources available. Start by thinking of the diversity of minds in the room, says Christine. "It instantly changes the feeling. You get different perspectives, questions, voices, ideas, knowledge."
At The Huntington, for instance, a library curator heard an interview where a gardener talks about medicinal plants. "It sparked a memory of recipe books from 13th Century monasteries, and we ended up telling a much bigger story about wellbeing and human history," reveals Christine.
In fact, the most important people to have in a room are those that deal with visitors every day. "They are deeply connected to what visitors are looking for and the kinds of questions they have,'' Christine says. “If we hadn't interviewed gardeners or seed propagators, we wouldn’t have surfaced so many of the stories that became integral to the experiences created at The Huntington."
In these socially aware times, Christine is a proponent of looking at each exhibit and considering the narrative that has been left out of the historical record. She uses the audio stop at a 19th Century statue of Persian queen, Zenobia, as an example.
"Instead of what might usually happen on a traditional audio tour—telling the story of who she is, her place in history or how the statue was acquired—we focused on the sculptor as the starting point for understanding the artwork," Christine explains. "Harriet Hosmer was a lesbian living openly in 19th Century Rome amongst a community of writers, poets and painters all defying convention. Why did she choose this subject matter? What was it about this Persian Queen and her politics, and how did that inspire her work?"
On the horizon
Helping visitors explore the entirety of a campus has never been more important, and even as the pandemic subsides and people freely explore indoors, we expect the trend of connecting outdoor and indoor spaces to continue.
The key to doing it successfully? Unexpected digital stories that immerse visitors, ultimately helping them make their own connections.