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What can be achieved in eight minutes?

Sarner’s Projects Director Ed Cookson discusses why visitor attractions should leverage the power of immersive storytelling to boost visitor numbers and audience engagement.

In this photo  - Visitors at the Cittadella 360° immersive show

Over recent decades museums have been radically transforming their principles, policies and practices to the point where the International Council of Museums is looking to redefine the definition of the term Museum, which itself has sparked a heated international debate in the industry.

But despite recent advancements, customer surveys are revealing that too often museums are still failing to engage their audiences in the full emotional and narrative potential of their collections. When artefacts are kept underneath protective glass screens they cannot be touched or closely observed, risking the reduction of a visitor’s contribution to passive observer and hindering their active engagement with the content, no matter how great it might be. This is particularly true for the younger generation who have grown up amidst increasing levels of digital interactivity.

Academic research (e.g. Perry et al. 2017) points to emotional connection as one of the key drivers of engagement. Heritage sites may have few remnants that are immediately relatable to the modern audience. It can be more difficult to develop a personal, emotional connection with events such as the battle of Waterloo which are beyond the living memory of several generations past. As a result, these venues need to consider how they can most effectively resonate with today’s visitors.

EMOTIVE Evaluation Framework (2017) suggests that the solution lies in adopting a story-based rather than an object-based approach. Story is the basis for all memorable experiences because it is the best way in which one can invoke emotion, and humans are hardwired to learn from stories and to engage with them. Back in time our ancestors would gather by the campfire and tell each other stories surrounded by beautiful cave paintings. These paintings would animate and come to life over firelight, drawing the audience deeper into the story. While the techniques have changed as new technologies have become available, the idea of immersing audiences within a story that resonates with them personally has been the constant for thousands of years.

Taking storytelling to the next level

Nowadays even a good story, written or narrated over an audioguide, is no longer enough to capture the full bandwidth of the audience’s attention. Marketing agencies are creating multisensory identities for brands – not only obvious candidates like food and beauty products, but even travel and insurance. As marketing becomes more multidimensional, consumers’ attention becomes “retuned” to expect immersive experiences that stimulate all senses.

Even the definition of heritage itself has evolved to become more multisensory. The Fontoteca National (National Sound Archive) of Mexico, for example, declared the sounds of Mexico City to be part of the nation’s cultural patrimony. Many countries are controlling the names associated with traditional foods, such as France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. As keepers of cultural heritage, museums may need to consider expanding the boundaries of what needs to be preserved and shared.

The drive towards a greater level of inclusion for the varied audience also points to multisensory design’s potential to make attractions more welcoming to visitors of diverse abilities. Met’s “multisensory stations”, for example, invite all visitors to experience the exhibits though scent, touch, music and verbal imaging. Brooklyn Museum’s sensory tours include 3D printed replicas to create touchable experiences for visually impaired visitors.

It is important that these techniques do not become gimmicks. They must pull the visitor closer into the story, rather than risk distracting them out of it. When crafted with care and properly integrated, immersive, multisensory storytelling has an unparalleled power to create engaging, memorable experiences for visitors, while attracting new audiences that previously didn’t consider heritage attractions as accessible or inspiring.

Let’s take a look at a case study

Our clients often turn to us for advice on how to transform a space and an idea into a commercially successful destination. Our recommendation invariably is to start with and be led by a story.

Our signature immersive, content-driven approach delivered great results on a project commissioned by the Ministry for Gozo.

Gozo is one of the Maltese islands, known for its Mediterranean seascape, rugged landscape, and for being the purported home of Calypso, who wooed Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. The island is also home to an ancient Cittadella, a fortress that for centuries was a place of shelter for the locals in times of war.

With EU funding secured, the Ministry for Gozo called upon Sarner to create an immersive, timetravelling experience celebrating the island’s history in the abandoned water reservoirs underneath the Cittadella.

With no historical objects available to display, Sarner instead leveraged the power of storytelling, media and striking architecture. Holographic projections, interactive displays, stunning graphics, elements of theatre, film and audio-visual technology draw the visitors further and further into the story. The multisensory journey culminates in a spectacular 360-degree wrap-around projection show just over eight minutes long.

Within 3 months of opening, Cittadella had already welcomed over 100,000 visitors. The feedback was universally positive: the satisfaction rate among the visitors more than doubled since Sarner built the new attraction, from 42% to an impressive 97%.

The visitor centre won the Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement, Best Visitor Attraction Project at the Install Awards and was named ‘Entertainment Venue of The Year’ at the prestigious AV Awards ceremony in London.

It is also important to note the wider economic benefit for Gozo and its local community. By enhancing the island’s cultural identity, the project delivered a 29% boost in tourism. At the same time, local operators’ satisfaction ratings increased from 48% to 86%. Many local businesses had to extend their opening hours in order to meet a spike in demand.

The power of immersive storytelling

As creators of visitor experiences, we now have an incredible set of tools and techniques to create a deeply moving experience, which in turn has a proven ability to create lasting memories of desired learning outcomes. When after a show finale just over eight minutes long in Cittadella’s atmospheric reservoirs we see visitors moved to tears, we know we have a proven formula for impactful storytelling. Just as the Cittadella’s brick walls are being protected by conservationists, its story is now being shared and remembered, thanks to thoughtfully crafted content-led immersive design.