Good to Great: Why Art Museums Need More Stories

January 27, 2015
January 27, 2015 Tom Allin

Ever since I got back from Europe, people have been asking what my favorite part of the trip was. Considering that we spent our time in Amsterdam and London, one would assume this might be a difficult question to answer.

Let me tell you. It’s not.

On a trip that included the Rosetta Stone, the Tate Modern, and the wonderland that is central Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum left me with the feeling that I had just visited the best art museum in the world. And, this is coming from someone who has visited some GREAT art museums – several on this trip alone.

Art museums, I discovered, are like luxury brands. They offer magnificent quality, but often fall into the trap of assuming that quality alone will build a strong customer base and a loyal following. My trip to the Van Gogh Museum confirmed my belief that a fantastic product simply isn’t enough.

Here’s what I loved about the Van Gogh Museum: It told a story. And, specifically, it told Van Gogh’s story. Unlike other museums where there can be a mishmash (by period or theme or whim) of art in any given room, 90% of the paintings in the Van Gogh Museum were by Van Gogh – and most of them were arranged into general chronological periods of Van Gogh’s life and art.

As a visitor, I was able to trace Van Gogh’s early fixation on rural life, his transition to the less idealized depiction of peasants, the explosion of color in his work that accompanied his move to Paris, and his frenzied last year painting (a painting a day) from an asylum in France.

Art by other painters was sprinkled throughout the halls, and I could actually see how Van Gogh was influenced by each piece that was included. As my wife commented later: “I have never seen you read every single art card so thoroughly in my life.”

The Van Gogh Museum showed me not only that art museums can be intensely engaging – even for folks who aren’t artists or art history majors – but it also showed me that storytelling is seriously underused in the art museum world. Sure, the museum might sacrifice the opportunity to showcase a variety of artists and styles, but it was so strong on the quality of experience that I didn’t care that I was primarily looking at just one artist’s work.

From a brand standpoint, effective storytelling communicates what matters, why it matters, and more specifically, why it should matter to you. It can be a brand’s most powerful tool in attracting and keeping loyal customers. It’s not that other art museums don’t have equally good (or better) art. It’s that, as a visitor, I need a story to care.

By showing your customers what matters, why it matters, and why it should matter to them, your brand – however strong it already was – will only get stronger.


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