On A New Threshold: Experiments In Gaming, Retail And Performance Design To Shape Museum Entrances

Ross Parry, University of Leicester, UK, Alex Moseley, University of Leicester, UK, Erik Kristiansen, Roskilde University, Denmark


Even as museums continue to push content out to the network and support experiences at a distance, the threshold to the physical museum endures as a highly visible and symbolic space, where trust and expectations are built, protocols established and affordances noticed. But, today, are these threshold spaces still fit for purpose? Is the use of media within these spaces appropriate for modern modes of visiting? Are the informational metaphors (such as the architectural plan) sensitive to today’s media literacies? Does visitor connectivity suggest new types of encounter? And does visitors’ experience of playing, buying, discovering and learning in other parts of their lives point to alternative means of scaffolding the museum threshold event? Drawing upon the work of two connected research projects (in the UK and Denmark) this paper shows how museum threshold media might be influenced usefully by other sectors that (arguably) have more evolved concepts and practices around ‘threshold’, ‘orientation’ and ‘initiation’ – specifically retail, gaming and performance. The paper will also explain how three experimental media interventions (using these new conceptual lenses) were tested within three real museum contexts – the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (London), New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Leicester) and Chatsworth House (Bakewell, Derbyshire). Finally, the paper concludes by rethinking the idea of museum ‘threshold’ (defined, instead, by intention and action rather than physical parameters, perhaps more by time rather than space), and ends by reflecting upon the influence that the web is having on the conceptualisation, strategic use and design of our physical museum entrances.

Keywords: threshold, foyer, entrance, space, design, gaming, retail, performance

1. From single to multiple points of entry

From one perspective, the story of museums and the Web over the last two decades can be seen as a story of multiplying thresholds. After all, during their first generation of journeys in hypermedia museums have reconfigured their points of contact with audiences and the points at which a museum experience might begin. As a result, for many institutions today, the idea of a single point of entry (one threshold to the museum) is no longer orthodox. Instead, through mobile content, open data, and social media, the museum continues to develop platforms and channels on and through which visitors might (re-)encounter and (re-)enter the museum. Today, rather than time-constrained and event-bound, the museum is always on, and on-demand. Rather than being encompassing and immersive, the museum experience might be (intentionally) fleeting and fragmentary – one of many headlines from an RSS feed, a single contribution to a page of image search results, one ‘friend’ or ‘tweet’ among many, another pin on an information-rich map. Consequently, with in-transit audiences pulling on museums amidst the everyday, and museums pushing content to the places where users go, institution and visitor have together creatively challenged the single entry point into the museum. In this way, rather than singular, the museum threshold has become multiple, distributed and – at times – peripatetic.

In spite of this, the threshold to the physical museum nonetheless remains a highly visible and symbolic space. Von Naredi-Rainer (2004) helpfully reminds us of the long tradition of framing the entry point to the museum. It is a tradition perhaps that we might usefully reflect upon in the context of other framing traditions from the Europe’s early modern period – the time and culture from which it continues to be instructive to understand many characteristics of the modern museum, even in our post-modern and post-industrial condition. For instance, there is still perhaps more to understand about the relationship between the façade offered by the museum over the last five hundred years and the ‘frontispieces’ (specifically the antique architectural forms of emblematic title-pages) used by books of the time (Corbett and Lightbown, 1979: 4-5). The ‘entry point’, so to speak, for many Renaissance readers into these literary works, was through fantastical representations of portals, archways and gateways. Likewise, we might recall (as Roy Strong (1984) does) the festival and pageant culture that built triumphant archways, again drawing upon the classical pattern of columns, capitals, pediments, and pilasters, to mark the entry points on days of city festival and civic pageant. Influenced by these traditions of architectural framing, built processional archways (to which it would be also be easy to add the emergence and meaning of the proscenium arch within theatre history), the museum’s entrance, consequently, continues to be iconic – if not metonymic – for the museum. We see this in the British Museum’s response in 2000 to the creation of its new threshold space, the Great Court, seeing it not just as an ‘accessible nucleus’, but ‘a new kind of museum-going experience […] another new beginning, both symbolic and practical’ (Anderson, 2000: 97-100). And it is a similar iconic meaning that Rees Leahy (2010) suggests the visitor encounters in the defining presence of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

However, these readings of two relatively new iconic thresholds also remind us that these spaces do more than just provide symbolic and physical gateways. Working from a communication studies perspective, the work of the Danish Research Centre in Education and Advanced Media Materials (DREAM), has helped to identify not only a typology and nomenclature for articulating and differentiating visitor activities in museum entrances, but also, importantly, a robust empirical basis on which to assume the multifunctional use that visitors make of these spaces. DREAM’s recent qualitative study has involved two art museums (Arken Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery in Copenhagen), two historical museums (Moesgård Museum, and the Media Museum in Odense), and one science centre (the Experimentarium in Copenhagen). As well as documenting the structural properties of the architecture and the service functions within the spaces, non-intrusive on-site observation recorded the flow of social interaction by and between visitors, and a series of semi-structured interviews with front-of-house museum staff at each of the sites. DREAM’s emerging research in this area sees the museum foyer as a multi-layered space of communication, characterised by a series of transformative practices and interactions by both staff and visitors, conceived across four phases of entry (‘arrival’, ‘orientation’, ‘service’ and ‘preparation’), and four phases of exit (‘preparation’, ‘service’, ‘evaluation’ and ‘departure’). Research such as this is revealing the museum entrance space simultaneously performing a way-finding, informational, rule-setting and ambience-setting function. They are places where, for the visitor, trust and expectations are built, protocols established and affordances noticed. Museological research more widely indicates that this function may be ritualistic (Duncan and Wallach, 1978). It may be the start of a holistically conceived interpretive programme (Lord & Lord, 2002). Or it may be a critical opening ‘component’ (Falk & Dierking, 1992) of the visitor’s narrative within the museum (Psarra, 2009; Skolnick, 2005). More than just a gateway or transit space we might see – as James Clifford (1997) does – the entrance as part of the institution’s ‘contact zone’, or as an example of Viv Golding’s ‘frontier space’ within the museum. Whether in their physical properties (Royal Ontario Museum, 1999; Peponis and Hedin, 1982), or the modes of thought they represent (Watson, 2010; Bonet, 2006; Bullen, 2006; Dernie, 2006; Gregory, 2004; Liebchen, 2001; Lampugnani & Sachs, 1999), or indeed the sociological behaviour they frame (Tsybulskaya & Camhi, 2009; Macdonald, 1998; Duncan, 1995), it is evident that the entrance to the on-site museum – the physical threshold – remains historically resonant, sociologically complex, interpretatively meaningful, and pivotal to the visit event.

Consequently, our current condition is of a museum institution (and museological culture) that continues to valorise the threshold and entrance, but at a time when other digital channels challenge its place as the principle (if not exclusive) point of entry. In short: the iconic physical museum entrance persists, even at this moment when digital media challenges its iconicity.

2. New conceptual frameworks for transforming museum thresholds

In light of this perceived tension, it seems reasonable to ask whether the idea and function of the museum’s physical threshold (in our postdigital condition (Parry, 2013), after the digital revolution) warrants reconsideration. What, in other words, do museum entrances do today, and what could they be for? Moreover – and perhaps more challengingly – we might also ask if visitors’ experiences of playing, buying, discovering and learning in other parts of their lives, point to alternative means of scaffolding the museum threshold event. Are, for instance, the perennial informational metaphors that museums present to visitors on arrival (such as the classic architectural plan) sensitive to the modern media literacies of today’s visitors? Does a labelled plan of the building still warrant being the most prominent first device to present to a visitor to help frame a museum experience? Might instead contemporary media life (might the Web?) actually offer other visual grammars and systems through which a visitor might usefully (perhaps more usefully) imagine their visit?

Certainly, we know orientation and thresholds in museums are not always successful. We need only look towards the observational analysis of visitor behaviour by Christina Goulding (2000), to evidence an example of what happens when orientation fails. Likewise, reflecting on the politics of entering the museum, Elaine Heumann Gurian (2005) presents us with the intellectual equipment to question militantly our museum threshold spaces. Perhaps amongst all of the literature on museum entrances and foyers, it is Gurian’s concept of ‘threshold fear’ that resonates most, capturing as it does the profoundly political dimension of entry, just how much is at stake in the design and use of space within the museum foyer, and what a fundamental barrier unsuccessful (unsympathetic) design can be.

The ‘Transforming Thresholds’ project represents one co-ordinated and collaborative attempt to explore some of these questions around museum entrance design. The project (led by the University of Leicester and funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council) brought together, over a period of eighteen months, a diverse network of academics, commercial companies and cultural heritage organisations, with the shared aim of investigating progressive ways of re-conceiving the post-digital museum entrance. Specifically, the network of collaborators worked from the principle that museum thresholds (and ‘threshold media’) could be influenced usefully by other disciplines and sectors that might be seen to have more evolved concepts and practices around ‘threshold’, ‘orientation’ and ‘initiation’.

A two-day inter-disciplinary workshop of collaborators (hosted by the University of Birmingham’s ‘Digital Humanities Demonstrator’) used game-based learning techniques to identify three areas of academic research and professional practice where a mature discourse and sets of practical tools around the idea of ‘threshold’ (or concepts similar) were thought to exist (Moseley, Page & Parry, 2013). Seen from these disciplinary perspectives, the museum entrance was conceived variously as: a ‘servicescape’ for attracting customers (from retail studies); a ‘magic circle’ for engaging players (from a gaming perspective); a ‘stage’ for immersing audiences (from a performance art point-of-view). Inspired by each of these respective frameworks, a series of design interventions and curatorial experiments were then conceived and installed at three UK museums: the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (London); New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Leicester); and Chatsworth House (Bakewell, Derbyshire). The three creative interventions were temporary and (largely) modest experiments. Yet, together, and particularly when seen in the context of the wider ‘Transforming Thresholds’ project, they not only represent alternative lenses through which to view the museum foyer, but also suggest new sets of assumptions from which the design of these entrance spaces might imaginatively be built.

3. The museum entrance and retail design:  advertising ‘saliency’

The first intervention involved taking concepts from retail studies and retail design to reshape the entry space to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (London). A retail studies perspective affords the opportunity for the museum foyer to be conceived as ‘servicescape’ – a designed journey for a consumer (rather than a specific physical space) that might begin well before they enter a store, perhaps even online, and may integrate cues from the surrounding environment. Drawing upon a theory of visual attention and ‘saliency’, in the ‘servicescape’ of retail design the consumer could be led by objects (including moving objects), the draw of light and sight lines, rather than just words and textual signs (Harwood, Jones & Tiernan 2011; Harwood, Jones & Carreras 2013). Consequently, drawing on these principles, the retail intervention at the Petrie Museum, aimed (in the words of the designers Cosas Industries and Arup) to harness the ‘linearity of the stairwell to use sound and image to create a layered immersive experience of differences in scale to mimic the objects in the gallery’. The use of a commissioned digital soundscape and identification of salient objects from the collection had a significant impact on sampled visitor reactions to the entrance space of the museum. Surveys were carried out pre-installation and post-installation. In the original survey almost 40% of visitors surveyed (33% of the footfall for that week) stated the entrance space of the museum (the staircase) did not prepare them for the visit at all. After the intervention this dropped to less than 10%. Conversely, 23% of visitors thought that the ‘servicescape’ intervention prepared them for their visit ‘very well’ (point ‘5’ on a five-point scale), compared to just 10% before the redesign. The results of sentiment analysis on visitors’ responses to their experience of the museum entrance showed that just over 60% conveyed negative comments. This figure dropped to just 15% after the introduction of the salient object images and soundscape.

Three images: the first of the staircase to the Petrie Museum; the second a 'storyboard' image of the proposed design for the intervention; the last an external view from the street of the museum.

https://mw2014.museumsandtheweb.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/parry.fig2_-300x101.png 300w, https://mw2014.museumsandtheweb.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/parry.fig2_-500x168.png 500w, https://mw2014.museumsandtheweb.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/parry.fig2_.png 1099w" sizes="(max-width: 584px) 100vw, 584px" /> Figure 2: ‘Retail’ intervention on the entrance staircase into The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (London).

Although this visitor studies data might point towards a successful intervention in this specific instance, it is perhaps the wider issues highlighted by the exercise that are particularly noteworthy. After all, the introduction of assumptions from retail design into the Petrie raises a series of important questions for our considerations of museum entrances. How are sight lines and lighting used in entrance spaces to orient visitors and help guide them to particular parts of a museum’s spaces and exhibitions? How might the museum design its ‘servicescape’ from initial point of visitor contact through to the final point of visitor exit? How are different modes of communication designed into layers of meaning?  Are verbal signs traditionally over-privileged in the museum threshold at the expense of image and sound? Wherever these specific discussions may head, it seems clear that ‘saliency’ (especially as understood in retail studies) is a resonant and useful concept, deserving of more thorough and systematic consideration within museums studies.

4. The museum entrance and game design: Entering the ‘magic circle’

Inspired by concepts from game design, the second ‘Transforming Thresholds’ intervention took place at Chatsworth House (Bakewell, Derbyshire). In contrast to the small, nested internal entrance space of the Petrie Museum, Chatsworth House boasts an expansive external threshold for visitors to negotiate. The Chatsworth ‘foyer’ is in fact a large grass and paved area between its outdoor car park and the four main entry points to the complex. A tension lies in the range and choice of entrances presented to the visitor.

Theories of gaming allow thresholds (particularly large complex thresholds such as that at Chatsworth) to be considered within the context of Huizinga’s suggestion that ‘play’ is both ‘free’ and ‘distinct from the ordinary’ (Huizinga, 1949), and the definition from Caillois (1979) of ‘alea’ play – where playfulness comes from a basis in chance or luck. Both definitions might apply favourably to a threshold (such as at Chatsworth) where visitors may or may not actively seek guidance or orientation, but may – in an ‘explorative play’ act – be looking consciously or subconsciously for clues to guide and orient (De Freitas & Neumann, 2009). In Huizinga’s terms, the museum threshold might mark the transit into the ‘magic circle’ of game design; once entered, the visitor then might be more willing to participate in a playful experience, with the tangible benefit of orientation as a reward. Games of this kind where the players (the visitors) are playing outdoors, on-site and in a public space using the properties of the site as part of the game are characterized by the partly hidden nature of the game. Part of the game is to find and engage with the play elements of the game (Kristiansen, 2014).

One solution, perhaps, is not to think about the foyer as a space in which actual games (in a hard sense of gaming) might be played, but rather as environments in which particular game mechanics might be integrated. In this way there is an opportunity to add some (medium agnostic) cues which might help visitors know how to interact with the museum. In the case of the Chatsworth gaming intervention, playful hints (using digital and non-digital media) were introduced at each of the entrances – invitations to explore further, rather than obvious direction markers. For example, working with De Montfort University (Leicester) and one of the UK’s leading digital holography designers (Martin Richardson), a lenticular hologram, requiring no power or lighting, added ‘ghosts’ of movement on signs, which the visitor would see as they passed by.

Though a small experiment, the Chatsworth intervention illustrates perhaps how using principles of play and gaming in a threshold design, can produce an invitation to engage – a gentle pull into the ‘magic circle’. The Chatsworth lenticulars leave us wondering perhaps the extent to which museums can use the foyer space as a point in which the ‘codes for play’ are set out and visitors are prepared for the experience to follow, and what ‘icons’ or ‘assets’ (which game mechanics) can be usefully included in a foyer space as part of engaging with the ‘game’ of visiting the museum? The challenge of transferring this metaphor of the ‘magic circle’ to the museum foyer (and an area for further research) is how to naturalise the transition into that space, and deciding how explicit the instructions to the ‘visitor as player’ need to be.

5. The museum entrance and performance: Staging ‘human signs’

New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Leicester), provided the site for the third and final ‘Transforming Thresholds’ intervention – presenting an example of how performance art and performance studies might provide creatively alternative frameworks for conceptualising the design and experience of museum entrance spaces. New Walk has a simple, square foyer which leads from its main doors, through a second series of doors to the ground floor exhibition spaces, and which contains a flight of stairs (slightly occluded by the front reception desk) which leads to the first floor galleries. Although the foyer contains an abundance of non-digital signage, the museum’s own visitor studies have shown that people need more help with wayfinding within the space – particularly in seeing the opportunity to ascend the stairs to the first floor.

By working with director, actor and street theatre performer, Nathan Human, the design of the New Walk threshold intervention could start from an arrestingly different assumption: ‘It is interesting to consider’, Human (2013) challenges, ‘to what extent visitors are actively managing their experience and “acting” in a way they feel they are expected too, therefore becoming mobile scenery themselves, rather than active players.’ Human’s response was to utilise conventions from Augosto Boal’s notion of ‘invisible theatre’ – ‘using actors to play out scenes in public without the usual demarcations of performance, but still with the intention of having an effect on the unknowing audience’ (Human, 2013). The ‘Museum Players’, consequently, was a planned but naturalistic performative intervention within the museum’s foyer which took place over the course of one day (in 2013). Building on a tradition of live theatre in museums (Jackson & Kidd, 2011), the intervention was developed through progressive stages of improvisation, with three pre-delineated characters being built up through interactions in the museum foyer as a ‘real life’ rehearsal space.

The actors in the performance become ‘human signs’, demonstrating to visitors (who may not have known they were actors and that they were performing) how to use the space of the foyer:

‘As well as being a safe, transitory type of performance that will not leap out at an audience/visitor, the Museum Player will also have more of a remit to act as a Cicerone, guiding the audience/visitors in a non-intrusive way by offering non-verbal signs by looking, walking and by also being open to the offer of answering a question. Some people might be intimidated by a uniform but by creating characters for the Museum Players that are primed to look for and recognise visitors that might be in need of assistance, the Player can then adopt their Cicerone persona.’

(Nathan Human, 2014)

Visiting observation and tracking data showed that the ‘Museum Players’ influenced visitor use of the space through micro acts of ‘recruitment’, with a higher proportion of visitors than before appearing to copy and follow the actors’ movement up the stairs to the first floor of the museum:

‘Visitors would be distracted by what they were doing or from their set path by the Player standing still and reading the signs. We saw clearly the visitor follow the modelling activity of the Player turning their head towards the stairs and then copy another Player who went up the stairs.’


Though a brief experiment, ‘Museum Players’ harnessed the techniques used by theatre performance  – specifically on how boundaries between performance and non-performance are negotiated and delineated, and how the ‘offer’ is made to a new audience. Yet more widely, the performance of ‘Museum Players’ within the entrance space of New Walk, provides a tantalising example of the potential not just of invisible theatre approaches within museums but of what becomes possible when the museum threshold as a whole is conceived as a performance space, or – at least – designed with performance in mind.

6. Conclusion: On a new threshold

This paper has attempted to suggest how digital media (and the Web in the particular) has necessitated a reconsideration of what the physical thresholds of our museums are for (and how they work) in a postdigital context. Specifically, it has been proposed here that this reconsideration might profit from looking towards a set of other practices and disciplines (retail studies, game design and performance art – as three examples) that might hold more mature conceptualisations of ‘orientation’, ‘threshold’, ‘boundary’ and ‘initiation’.

Furthermore, through the three experimental museum interventions considered here (one using ambient media; another augmented signage, a third invisible performance), we are left reflecting on whether ‘threshold’ might better be understood in terms of intention and action, rather than as a physical parameter. It may well be that we are better served seeing museum thresholds more in terms of time, rather than space.

Whatever we choose ultimately to conclude, the case of museum entrance thresholds provides a striking example of how a digital medium such as the Web can have a profound influence on the conceptualisation, strategic use and design of our physical experience and provision. It is – curiously – an illustration of how digital media can encourage reconceptualization of other (non-digital) aspects of museum provision.


The authors are grateful to the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for their generous support of the ‘Transforming Thresholds’ research workshop project (2012-2014). Led by the University of Leicester, the project is a collaboration between: the ERDF-funded Digital Humanities Demonstrator at the University of Birmingham; DREAM (Danish Research Centre on Education and Advanced Media Materials) at the University of Southern Denmark; the University of Westminster; University College London; De Montfort University; and the University of Northampton; Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries; The British Museum; Chatsworth House Trust; Leicester Arts and Museums Service; The Petrie Museum, London; Citizen 598; Arup; Blip Creative; Daden; Forth Digital Consultancy; Star-dot-star; and Studio Bonito. The group are particularly grateful to Maja Rudloff, Geuntae Park, Jennifer Walklate, Amy Hetherington and Sarah Allard for their roles as research assistants at crucial stages in the project’s literature review, fieldwork and data analysis.


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Cite as:
. "On A New Threshold: Experiments In Gaming, Retail And Performance Design To Shape Museum Entrances." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published April 2, 2014. Consulted .

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