Thinking outside the museum

A new perspective on visitors

The Case

Amazing collections on display and a brand-new train station within 5-minute walking distance from Utrecht’s museum district. The goal of a 20% increase in museum visitors seemed realistic.

It turned out to be a bit more difficult; it takes effort to get people’s attention. To seduce them to visit your museum you have to step up your game. That is exactly what the 10 museums did. Not only did they join forces, they also asked us to help them in their endeavor.

In two workshops with employees from 3 of the museums we explored ideas and opinions on what makes a museum a good museum. The results of those sessions are visualized below. Collaboration between museums was often mentioned, just as having a strong collection and regularly creating interesting exhibitions.

Surprisingly, during both workshops the visitor was never mentioned.

Utrechtse Museums

Visitor increase of 20% (from 800,000 to 1 million) for the ten largest museums in Utrecht.

Multiple innovative initiatives to get people to visit the museums, based on behavioral insights we found.

Want to know more?
Download the Case Study!
(Dutch only)

People do not typically
‘just go to a museum’

What’s next

We then knew what we we needed to do next. We had to find out what a visit to a museum means to people. We needed to gain insight on (potential) visitors and what attract them to the museum.

When we did some preliminary research among museum visitors, the most significant thing we discovered was that people do not typically go to ‘a museum’. Nor do they specifically come for the outstanding collection. What we found was that people are looking for a fun day out, they want to do something together or with their children. Sometimes the delicious brownies in the museum café were what motivated a visit. Or they wanted to take a picture with the Miffy statue on Miffy’s Square.

These insights led us to search for the where, what and why before, during and after of a museum visit. We wanted to learn all about the visitor and their motives. That information would shape the foundation for meaningful and useful answers to the challenge at hand.

During the conversation about important assets of a museum only one employee was focused on the experience of a visitor.

Field research

We started to follow people as they moved through town. Where did they come from, where did they pause, where were they going? Could they easily find their way, and the museums? And how did they go about finding their way back to the train station? For a few weeks during summer we stepped into the shoes of Utrecht’s visitors.

It turned out that most of them are by no means interested in the shortest route to a museum – or the quickest way back to the train station. They were strolling through town and letting themselves be surprised by what they discovered or came across. Some would find Miffy at her little square, some would stop to eat ice cream on the street, others walked along the canals, or took their time to find the perfect spot for a selfie with the Dom tower.

It makes sense to move through a city that way when you are visiting. But why were cultural institutions not visibly present at any of these tourist hot spots? And why were there no representatives to assist and inform visitors? Nothing was pointing people towards the museums.

Representative data
We shadow people in the real world so we don’t influence their behavior. The less aware people are about our research, the more natural they will behave and thus we get more reliable data.

“The Saying Doing Gap”
There is a big difference between the information you can collect from surveys and the information you get from observing people’s behavior. It’s a well-known phenomenon. That’s why, besides observing, we prefer doing interviews where there’s room for depth.


Some of the products that were designed voor this project.

“DeCentraal Museum”

Changing the perspective and looking at a visit to the museum as (part of) a day out opens up a world of opportunities and innovations. That is, if the museum is willing to look beyond its front door and take on the role of curator of the public domain. To be visible and present at all those spots where the people are that may become your visitor.

Of course, one proven method to make that happen is to use outdoor advertising. But what other solutions can we think of to make people embrace art, culture and history? That is where we directed our focus and energy.

It led to the basic idea of the “DeCentraal Museum” – Dutch for decentral museum. The key ingredient is to use the touristic hotspots as gateways to the museums.

We also looked at the opportunities in the timeframe before and after a visit to a museum. From the moment the decision is made to go to a museum, supply people with practical information about how to get there, things to see and visit along the way, et cetera.

And when they are ready to leave the museum at 11:28 hours, where can they go next? Suggestions for other things to explore, lunch restaurants, discounts or any other useful stuff to extend their visit into a day out in Utrecht. An app can easily accommodate all those things.

Hotspots attract a lot of people but museums don’t make use this situation.

Use the busy hotspots throughout the city to showcase small parts of the museums collections.

People become aware of what the museums have to offer and can easily find their way to them.

“We just visit the museum and we also look for the best spot in town to eat fries!”

Did it work?

Did our insights and ideas lead to the desired 20% increase? To be honest, we don’t know that yet. What we do know is that Utrecht’s museums were able to make a shift and are increasingly ‘thinking outside the museum’. They are becoming more visible outside their own buildings and are claiming their presence in the public domain where they meet and attract potential future visitors. The mural on the façade of a building on the Asch van Wijckskade is a good example of that new approach.

Design Research

Matching real human needs is what creates real meaning and value. We zoom in on what truly drives your customers and explore the world through their eyes. Our research leads the way to opportunities to make their lives easier. Human-centered design guides organizations to solve complex problems.

Applied methods
Shadowing, Mapping, App Prototyping

Design Research

Putting people first

Explore more projects:

KLM Studio
Victim Support NL
Museums of Utrecht

Strategic Design

Tap into unexplored areas

Explore more projects:

OMO School Community
Schneider Electric

Designing Cultures

Cultivate a creative environment

Explore more projects:

Ministry of Economic Affairs
KLM Pride is blue
KLM Book
SHN Implementation

Get in touch

Want to know what we can do for your museum?
Call +31 30 8903220 or send an e-mail!

Design in
the service
of people

Schaverijstraat 11
3534AS Utrecht
030 8903220