Designing a more inclusive museum experience

Written by
Kari Dooren
Have you ever wandered around a museum feeling overwhelmed and not knowing how to connect with art in a personal way? Well, you are not alone. Museum visitors often consider art an acquired taste like wine or cheese, like it’s supposed to take an education to appreciate it. But all you really need is a little context and a curious mind.

Over the past few months, I have been doing my graduation project from the master Strategic Product design (TU Delft) on the topic of inclusivity within the museum sector. I found it truly fascinating to explore this complex societal topic and dive straight into the context of museums whilst being supported by DEUS and The Rijksmuseum.

Early on in this journey, I learned that museums have a huge social and societal responsibility to speak and belong to everyone. However, while concerns around inclusion and equality are rapidly growing in all its forms, museums entered a time of fundamental change. Real action needs to be taken to live up to renewed inclusive standards: go beyond the current efforts, really fulfil inclusive policies and promises, and truly listen to visitors’ needs.

In this article, I will be giving a brief overview of the findings and results of my project.
📕 You can find the full thesis report

What is inclusion?

There are many interpretations of the word ‘inclusion’, but little guidance on what this word exactly means. So I decided to come up with my own definition of inclusion: “Inclusion is the practice or policy of including everyone in an interaction or experience, by embracing diversity and recognising universality.” So, it is really about making everyone feel welcome, recognised and heard.

Inclusivity within the (Dutch) museum sector

‘Society is changing. We are all part of that society and therefore the museum is changing too.’ — Taco Dibbits, Chief Director at The Rijksmuseum

From diving deeper into the museum sector, I found that numerous inclusive initiatives and clear commitments from museum leaders show that the will to become more inclusive is there. However, from interviewing museum experts and practitioners, I also defined three key challenges that limit museums to become more inclusive. Nonetheless, to overcome these challenges three key opportunities were defined in relation to these challenges. See the image below.

Three key challenges related to three key opportunities


  • C1 | Making it a priority to continuously adopt an inclusive attitude throughout the entire organization.
  • C2 | Acknowledging diversity is only a first step. Creating inclusion is when you put diversity into action.
  • C3 | Create a mutual symbiotic relationship with the public. Allowing both parties to benefit from one another.


  • O1 | Building the right resources and a long-term strategy to make inclusion a continuous priority.
  • O2 | Focusing on involving the public from the start and having adialogue with those you are trying to serve.
  • O3 | Working together with other institutions and creating new partnerships to learn from each other. Leveraging the power of teamwork.

Empathizing with museum visitors

In parallel to the in-depth investigation of the museum landscape, it was also important to empathize with museum visitors. So, through numerous in-depth generative interviews, I explored visitors’ needs concerning inclusive experiences within the museum atmosphere.

During this part of the research, I deliberately choose to move beyond the will to divide people and instead focus on fundamental needs. That way, I centralized the connection and similarities between people, opposed to their differences — which is one of the core principles when designing for inclusivity. As a result, I was able to define three key universal needs that came up strongest (Autonomy, Purpose and Stimulation). And, for each of these key needs, I defined three contextual needs that translate that need to the context of museum experiences specifically. See the image below.

Three fundamental needs applied in-context through nine contextual needs

Fundamental needs

  • Autonomy | Being the cause of your own actions and doing things your own way. Rather than feeling that external conditions and other people are the cause of your actions.
  • Purpose | Having a clear sense of what makes life meaningful and valuable. Rather than lacking direction, purpose or meaning in life.
  • Stimulation | Being mentally and physically stimulated by novel, varied and relevant impulses. Rather than feeling bored, indifferent, or apathetic.

Improving the relationship between museums and visitors

From synthesizing these insights, I found that improving the relationship between museums and their visitors was the most relevant opportunity to focus on in my design. Because what you see now is that the current relationship is very hierarchical, much like one-way traffic. For visitors, it now often feels like they have to be an art expert to understand what art is about, and to be able to have an opinion or idea about it. For many people, this feels elitist and like art is difficult to access. And this is (of course) not what we want if we want to be inclusive.

So that sparked my vision for the project: to improve on inclusivity, by improving the relationship between museums and visitors. With my final design, I wanted to help move away from that one-way traffic relationship, towards a mutual symbiotic relationship where both parties are able to benefit — kind of like the mutually beneficial relation between fish and coral reefs for example.

The mutual symbiotic relationship between museums and visitors - metaphor

Designing a service concept as a strategy

The final design that came out of this vision was a museum app called Habitat. Habitat guides visitors’ curiosity by giving small pieces of context and sparking questions, together with augmented sticky notes with comments left by other visitors.

Demo of Habitat - demonstrating a way to engage with the platform

So, the idea is that visitors are being asked a question on which they can respond, instead of being given a description, explanation, or factual knowledge, in a piece of traditional text. A very universal question, for which you don’t need to be an art expert to understand it or answer it and phrased in such a way that it supports your own line of thinking and your personal curiosity.

In the development towards this concept, several idea generation and conceptualization activities were performed in an iterative way — from brainstorming and observations, to experimentation and prototyping.

Let me give you a small demo:

First, Imagine you are standing in front of this painting with these two sisters. You want to engage with it, but don’t know where to start. You downloaded Habitat, created a profile, and scanned this painting with with the app (using image recognition).
Now, you can wander free — dive deeper into the trigger question, access detailed information, explore other visitors’ comments on (augmented) sticky notes, or leave your own impression on the wall. It is all up to you!

Demo of Habitat - demonstrating a way to engage with the platform

Note: no particular museum was used in this demo, it is just a general example of how the use of Habitat could look like.

Core benefits

In short: Habitat encompasses the current mismatch between visitors and the museums. The service aims to improve the interplay between them. Moving from sending information to visitors, using hierarchical interactions, towards a mutual symbiotic relationship, that encompasses collaborative, adaptive, positive, innovative, and assertive interactions.

Visitors' and museums' core benefits

Visitors’ benefits:

  • No need to be an art expert & making it personal — The trigger cards give visitors the feeling of ‘oh I now have some kind of entry point to connect with art myself, without having to be an expert.’ Ultimately, the contribution to inclusion here is all about helping people to look at what art can do or mean to them.
  • Become inspired — Habitat allows visitors to connect to art, and contribute to the museum, in an informal and conversational way. This allows them to inspire others and become inspired themselves, by the museum or by other visitors.
  • Freedom to explore and express — Habitat allows everyone to give their opinion. You are not judged, everything is valid, and you are free to express yourself. And besides that, it allows you to wonder, it does not dictate where you should go or how you should use the app. It is all up to you.

Museums’ benefit:

  • Continuously capture rich contextual visitor insights — It enables museums to make much more contact with their visitors, and learn from them. At the moment you see that museums are not asking that many questions to visitors and have very few channels through which they receive in-depth feedback. And that’s something this concept can change. Through Habitat, museums can capture rich visitor insights, while doing it in a continuous, and mutually beneficial way!
Please reach out if you are curious to know more about me or the project. ✏️
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