Local Projects is a media design firm that focuses on creating enduring projects through storytelling. They utilize collaborative storytelling, technology, and a visitor-first strategy to transform museums and public spaces.
We asked Nathan Adkisson, Director of Strategy at Local Projects, to talk with us about their work. His insights shed light into how museums can leverage storytelling and technology to create truly visitor-centered experiences that enable deep engagement with objects and each other.
MH: What is your role with Local Projects?
Nathan: I’m the Director of Strategy, which means that I help to identify where problems are, or the opportunities are, as opposed to defining what software to use or tools in a toolkit. My role is part business development, part operations, a bit of creative direction, and partnering with designers and technologists to figure out what the big vision for the project is. It entails a lot of strategy in the traditional sense, but also includes research about what a museum is really trying to do: turning a vague or brief idea into something full-fledged.
MH: How do you do that?
Nathan: I talk to museums to gather a wealth of knowledge: What do they offer? What will the visitors want to see? What are the current high or low points of the visit? What are visitors actually experiencing? When someone walks into the museum, they don’t stop being who they are — and the more museums can remember that, the more they can address what is happening to their visitors in the outside world. Local Projects tries to evolve the traditional “pure” experience of a museum — looking at the visit in isolation, so to speak. We take into account what the visitors’ experiences outside of the museum might be, which lets us put the visitor’s needs first when designing an experience.
MH: What is the hardest part of working with museums?
Nathan: It varies from museum to museum. The bigger that museums get, the more departments are involved in leadership — and the more voices there are to be involved. It’s difficult to find a solution that will make everyone happy all of the time, so we’ve gotten good at balancing. Everyone comes to the table with valid experiences, but we have to move quickly, especially with prototyping. You can do talking in board rooms for years upon years, and by the time you finally design the thing, changes come up because your audience or needs have changed. The sooner you can get to the making, the better.
Using Technology to Engage Visitors
MH: Tell us about Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Nathan: Gallery One was created to address the need of making this museum a destination and opening it up to new audiences. They were really serious about the project and doing something different. They originally thought it was a good idea to put iPads in front of all the artwork, but we cautioned against that. We’re in love with museums and storytelling and people and experience. Usually, we can find technology that heightens that, but we don’t think it has to be more technology all the time.
View Gallery One in the video below:
MH: What about the Target Open House project? That’s a hybrid museum-store, which seems completely unique and fun.
Nathan: I’m really intrigued by the challenge to build a store that is not a store, but a learning lab with a focus on storytelling rather than product features. You can buy everything in there, but it’s not the real purpose of it. If you think about how many connected devices you have — it’s about 3-4 — but if you think about non-connected products, all those have the opportunity to become connected products. Very few people know what a “connected home” looks like. The space feels like part museum, part world. Shopping is about an experience, that’s the only real reason people would go to a physical store instead of just buying something online. You don’t usually hear museum professionals and store people talk to each other, but museums have always been about the experience. Now that stores are fighting to get people into their stores, they are looking at the ways museums are successful at that.
Learn more about Target Open House in the video below:
MH: What does it mean for a project to be “enduring”?
Nathan: When we describe what we do, people default to what they know: “You guys make installations.” No, we don’t, because installations are often temporary. They go away. We really try and design experiences for museums that endure — that outlast any newness, because that’s a way to date yourselves really fast. If you build something where the storytelling is front and center, the experience will still endure. Film, music and the printed word are all technologies, but if you look what endures from those media, it’s the ones that tell great stories.
We’d love to build something with a museum’s docents, to give them tools that they would actually use. New technology will come in, but docents may never be consulted — yet they have incredible knowledge. It’d love to work with them and ask, “What can we build that will help you tell better stories?”
Storytelling in Museums
MH: How do you think museums should approach storytelling?
Nathan: Many stories are told in traditional ways — with lots of small text, or tons of detail, or very lecture-like. Museums should be making stories come alive. Younger people will come into museums and ask, “What does this have to do with me?” Our focus, and the focus of museums, should be developing experiences that answer that question.
MH: How can museums best engage their target audiences in developing their stories?
Nathan: Paying attention to what is happening in popular culture, and reflecting and relating that the art, is one way. Another is to create tools that allow the visitors to express the museum’s values. The Cooper Hewitt pen is an example of that—it’s one thing to talk about how valuable design is. It’s another to put a tool in the hands of visitors and allow them to feel it.
MH: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re really excited about?
Nathan: We’re working on a project with the ARoS museum in Aarhus, Denmark that will launch in October. A traditional theory of art is that it is valuable whether the audience is there or not. We believe art is most valuable in a social context, when it produces self knowledge and knowledge of others. So the ARoS project doesn’t focus on art history or interpretation, but rather on visitors’ relationships with each other.
MH: Finally, any parting advice to museums seeking to bring better storytelling into their programs and exhibits?
Nathan: Take a risk, look outside the museum for inspiration, and always prototype first.
Thank you to Nathan Adkisson of Local Projects for talking with us and sharing fresh new ideas and insights.
Do you work for or with museums? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us a quick email at [email protected] or read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.