Reimagining the Museum Lobby
AbstractThe lobby is the first place a visitor experiences a museum. But quite often this space is confusing and intimidating in its effort to serve a multitude of purposes. At The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, the lobby has historically welcomed approximately 3 million visitors annually. In October 2019, MoMA, which has undergone a multi-year expansion project including closing its doors to the public in the final four months of construction, will re-open with 30% more gallery and public space. The average annual visitation is also expected to increase noticeably. This paper outlines the thought process and evolution of MoMA's new lobby as it tackled key problems such as creating a single space to serve a widely diverse visitor base; balancing the tension between serving as a space for art versus a space for commerce; using technology solutions to minimize friction at points of transaction such as at the ticketing area, at the coat check, in the retail stores, and at the scanning posts' point of entry; optimizing queueing and manage crowds to ease visitors' anxiety; and assisting visitors in wayfinding after they complete the transactional elements of their Museum journey. This paper specifically focuses on the visitor experience in the lobby, and the making of MoMA's new lobby. Many assumptions were made in redesigning and transforming the lobby so that it is a space beyond simply commercial transactions, and so that art is fully integrated and a visitor is immersed in art from the moment they set foot inside. In addition to a deep dive of the aforementioned problems, and a description of how MoMA approached each, this paper will share results based on concrete data analytics and observations in its initial opening months. Where applicable, operational changes as a result of such data will also be shared.
Keywords: visitor experience, lobby, crowds, queuing, art and commerce
Figure 1: The 53rd Street entrance of the The Museum of Modern Art (Photo: Noah Kalina)
The lobby is the first place a visitor experiences a museum. But quite often this space is confusing and intimidating in its effort to serve a variety of purposes. At The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, the lobby has historically welcomed approximately 3 million visitors annually. In October 2019, MoMA, which has undergone a multi-year expansion project including closing its doors to the public in the final 4 months of construction, re-opened with 30% more gallery and public space. The average annual visitation is also expected to increase noticeably. This paper outlines the thought process and evolution of MoMA’s new lobby as it tackled key problems such as:
- How can MoMA make a single space serve such a widely diverse visitor base?
- How can MoMA’s lobby balance the tension between serving as a space for art vs a space for commerce?
- How can MoMA use technology solutions to minimize friction at points of transaction such as at the ticketing area, at the coat check, in the retail stores, and at the scanning posts’ point of entry?
- Regardless of how well staff and technology perform, queueing and crowding are inevitabilities. How can MoMA’s new lobby optimize queueing and manage crowds to ease visitors’ anxiety?
- How does MoMA assist visitors in wayfinding and where do visitors go after they complete the transactional elements of their museum journey?
This paper specifically focuses on the visitor experience in the lobby through the lens of technology, as well as the making of MoMA’s new lobby. Many assumptions were made in redesigning and transforming the lobby so that it is a space beyond simply commercial transactions; so that art is fully integrated and a visitor is immersed in art from the moment they set foot inside. In addition to a deep dive of the aforementioned problems, and a description of how MoMA approached each, this paper will share results based on concrete data analytics and observations in its initial opening months. Where applicable, operational changes as a result of such data will also be shared.
Goals for MoMA’s New Lobby
In 2017, at the beginning of the lobby redesign, we posed the question to a sampling of MoMA staff, “What does success in the lobby post building project look like to you?” The following table shows the frequency with which certain qualities were mentioned in the responses:
Table 1 “What does success in the lobby post building project look like to you?”
Although this was a survey involving a small sampling of individuals, after many further studies, involving greater numbers of staff and visitors, these same themes surfaced over and over again. These qualities helped to shape the goals for MoMA’s new lobby and reflect its multitude of purposes.
- First and foremost, the lobby must reflect MoMA’s mission as a place for art. The new lobby must offer different pathways for discovering art.
- Equally important, the new lobby must feel welcoming and inclusive for all visitors. It must offer respite, in direct contrast to the busy midtown Manhattan area where MoMA is located. A person entering should immediately perceive a noticeable shift, as in a breath of fresh air and calmness.
- As a space where mundane, yet necessary, commercial transactions must take place, the new lobby must provide the most flexible and expeditious manner to support a visitor’s basic need for ticket purchase, membership sign-up, and coat check. This process should be clear and free from anxiety.
- As the first space that a visitor interacts with, the new lobby must provide the right type of information at the right time. This means that signage and navigational elements should be progressively revealed as a visitor journeys deeper into the lobby, and ultimately into the galleries, and as basic needs such as ticketing have been met.
- The multiple entrances into the new lobby and the vertical transport choices from the lobby must feel welcoming and provide just enough information to the visitor so they feel comfortable and in control of where they are headed, yet general enough to give a visitor a sense of anticipation and excitement for the art to come.
Methodology for Introducing Change
MoMA’s new lobby is a result of many iterative tests conducted over a 3-4 year period, with specific focus on the technologies that support visitor experience around navigation and digital displays, ticketing desk and kiosks, coat check, scanning, and exit/entry spaces. In these next sections, we will outline some of those tests as well as the resulting solutions.
Digital Displays, Navigation, Wayfinding
The new expanded lobby features a variety of digital screens that work in concert with the architecture, physical signage, printed materials, various technologies, and staff to create a welcoming and efficient visitor experience. Since this paper covers the technological aspects of this system, this section will focus on the various digital screens that were installed as part of the expansion.
A guiding principle that informed the conception of the lobby experience was the idea of progressive disclosure. For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia defines the term as “an interaction design technique often used in human computer interaction to help maintain the focus of a user’s attention by reducing clutter, confusion, and cognitive workload. This improves usability by presenting only the minimum data required for the task at hand.” This concept guided many aspects of the visitor experience throughout the museum, including physical signage, printed materials, and the positioning of front-line staff. With regards to screens, monitors are located at many points throughout the campus in order to assist visitors throughout their visits, and the information they display is dictated by the needs at the given locations. This latter idea is especially important when considering the bustling environment of a busy museum lobby where visitors are eager to get to the art and are not likely to be inclined to slowly “digest” large amounts of information irrelevant to their current needs.
There are three primary types of digital screens in the new lobby and, in the spirit of progressive disclosure, each performs tasks based on the particular moment of contact in the visitor journey.
These screens accompany the Ticketing, Member, and Member and Film Reception desks that welcome visitors to the museum. All three desks employ ultra-wide screens that integrate with the horizontality of the architecture allowing information to be displayed across the length of the desks. The screens display the basic information needed at these locations, such as ticket prices, membership promotions, and desk purpose.
As of the writing of this paper, these screens do not support dynamic content, such as film screening or member event listings. We intend to add this functionality at a future date.
Figure 2: Ticketing platform
Figure 3: Ticketing platform
Figure 4: Member Desk (on left)
Figure 5 Member Desk
Figure 6: Member and Film Reception
Figure 7: Member and Film Reception
The central component of the screens system and a core element of the visitor experience is the Program Wall. Located in the heart of the lobby, the installation is comprised of four 98″ vertically oriented and contiguous 4K screens which makes for a formidable 16′ x 7′ of high-definition display area. The centrality of the installation combined with the fact that the onsite ticket purchase flow ends with visitors facing the Program Wall puts these screens directly in the path of a larger portion of the museum’s guests.
Figure 8: The Program Wall
The Program Wall was conceived with two main goals in mind:
- Communicate the museum’s full program for the day. While reasonable at first glance, the sizable ambition of this goal is revealed when considering the large number of exhibitions, events, performances, film screenings, and other activities that occur daily.
- Get visitors on their way to their point of interest via the correct vertical circulation core in under 10 seconds. This goal, which is oppositional in spirit to the previous goal, was set in order to mitigate congestion in the lobby.
Although large in size and therefore capable of presenting virtually limitless amounts of information, the scale of content on the screens was constrained by the goals (i.e. focusing on the program and cores and little else) as well as the strictures of progressive disclosure (i.e. displaying only what is useful at that moment). To these ends, the content design is relatively simple: the first three screens display exhibitions and some amenities (a concession to the fact that many visitors do, in fact, want to know where they can get a coffee or lunch, or buy a postcard) by core and then by floor; the fourth screen displays the day’s events, performances, and film screenings.
Figure 9: The Program Wall (detail of content)
Vertical circulation core directories
There are three primary vertical circulation cores in the new museum: the West core with dual elevators and a staircase, the South core with a single elevator and escalators, and the North core with dual elevators. At each core and on each floor (with the exception of the sixth floor of the North core because of space limitations), individual, vertically oriented 55″ 4K screens have been installed.
Figure 10: West circulation core directory
Figure 11: West circulation core directory
The design of the content echoes that of the Program Wall, where the 17 core directories display the appropriate core content from the Program Wall, adjusted for the smaller screen size. At the opening of the new building, the content on the elevator directories was exactly the same as the Program Wall where the exhibitions and amenities were limited to what was best accessible from the respective core. After opening, visitor research revealed that some guests were confused about the core-specific content because they assumed that the directories showed all the floor’s exhibitions and amenities, regardless of core affiliation. In an attempt to remedy this confusion, elevator directories now show all content per floor. Of course, we are continuing visitor research to determine whether this solution is an improvement over the core-specific variation.
There were three primary approaches and factors that guided the development of the content experience of the digital screens:
- Progressive disclosure, as described above.
- User-centered design and iterative development: As with most of our digital products, we design and build with the expectation that the experience will evolve based on visitor feedback and changing organizational needs. With this in mind, we did our best to design what we thought would be most helpful in a completely reconfigured lobby, but, critically, implemented a program of visitor observations and interviews after opening to surface shortcomings in the experience, and, equally important, scheduled development time to react to the findings (see previous section).
- Reality: This is not an approach but a limiting factor. As one might imagine, there was no shortage of work to be done for the opening of the museum. In order to deliver the best possible experience with the resources at hand and in the allotted time, we had to prioritize work ruthlessly, which often meant descoping the feature sets of the multitude of projects and initiatives related to the opening. Happily, the previous two approaches often help stakeholders feel more comfortable with smaller feature sets for launch in that the first emphasizes presenting only what is most essential, and the second involves adding features after launch based on feedback.
Several different treatments with varying amounts of information were explored during the content design phase of this project. Interestingly but, in retrospect, not surprisingly, the treatment that presented the least amount of information was preferred by a majority of internal stakeholders and universally by visitors in user testing. While maps, collection highlights, promotions, and even weather conditions seemed helpful, in the end, visitors unanimously favored jettisoning these details in favor of the simplified presentation.
Figure 12: The Program Wall
The aforementioned description of the content design refers to what visitors experience during normal opening hours. The museum is used for a variety of activities before and after normal opening hours, such as for exhibition openings, corporate events, performances, etc. For these activities, some or all of the screens can be used to display static or animated content. For example, exhibition openings often display graphics related to the exhibition design.
Hardware and software
A complete and detailed description of all the hardware and software used to build this system would require its own tome. Instead, what follows is a greatly simplified explanation of the architecture. (Please note that company and product names are not specified so as to avoid any implications of endorsement.)
As mentioned above, the system has two modes, after-hours and normal, and content for each is delivered differently.
- For after-hours, a digital signage solution that utilizes a web-based content management system (CMS) is used to coordinate and display content.
- During normal mode, content is delivered as web pages that are rendered using computers connected to each screen (one computer per screen). The custom CMS for this content is the same that powers moma.org, allowing for a single source of data for both products. Presenting the experience as web pages means that the same skill sets that are used to design and develop our website can be employed for the screens experience. The digital signage solution is used to switch between modes.
Lobby Transactional Elements
In this section, we will review the solutions used to address the transactional elements in the lobby. Because these can sometimes be anxiety inducing tasks for a visitor, a few guiding principles and targeted metrics were established to make these as frictionless and as simple as possible:
- The most common transactional elements of general ticket purchase, membership renewal, membership guest tickets, and coat check should each take no more than 30-40 seconds, whether this is through a self-service machine or a visitor engagement agent.
- Where possible, multi-lingual should be supported.
- A balance between staffing and thoughtful use of technology should minimize the need for long queues.
- Membership acquisition is essential in helping visitors maintain a long-term relationship with the museum. These transactions will take longer than the basic 30-second ones as they are strategic and high touch.
With these principles in mind, a number of studies were done as the architecture for the lobby unfolded. These studies made some basic assumptions:
- A majority of visitors, about 70-75%, enter through the main 53rd street entrance, and much smaller percentages enter through the staff entrance (also commonly known as the film entrance), and through the 54th street entrance – about 10-15% each.
- There will be one fixed ticket desk. When fully staffed, this desk can accommodate 14 ticketing agents. These agents can process all ticket request types, including the most common general admission, but also special tickets such as for member guests, discounted and group tickets.
- There will be self-service ticketing kiosks used to handle general admission and member guest tickets.
- There will be a dedicated membership area in the main lobby and a membership concierge space through the staff entrance.
- The coat check space remains the same in size and flow as in the old lobby.
Buying a ticket is probably one of the first things a visitor considers upon entering the lobby. MoMA’s goal for the ticketing experience was to provide as many options as possible to anticipate all possible needs. As per the architecture, the new ticketing area is slightly raised and accessible via a few steps or a ramp. Being on a raised platform made it extremely visible and easy for visitors to locate, but at the same time, it confined purchasers to a specific space. If lines should back up, the space can quickly feel crowded and can appear as a ticketing “pen”.
Concrete metrics were defined in order to minimize crowding in the lobby, and in particular, crowding in this new ticketing area. These metrics were done in conjunction with studies pertaining to new self-service kiosks along with mass motion analysis of visitor flow. The goal was to maintain a comfortable experience for the visitor in the lobby through a balance of staffing and technology on an average day and also a peak day. Minimally, after many periods of observation and study, the following ticket purchase origins were established as informed and realistically achievable goals:
- 8-12% through the on-line channel
- 25-30% through the on-site kiosks
- 60-65% through the on-site ticketing desk
Evolution of the Ticketing Kiosks
The first generation ticketing kiosk was a collaborative project between the museum, our ticketing vendor and the kiosk vendor. It worked really well as a first test and good uptake of ticket sales were observed through the kiosks (Pan, MW2018 Lightening Talk, Effectiveness of Self-Service Kiosks in the Museum Lobby).
These first kiosks were put in place at the time in anticipation for upcoming construction. Because MoMA intended to stay open for almost the entire construction period, parts of the lobby were incrementally closed to the public. The main 53rd street entrance, along with the front half of the lobby, was closed and walled off from the public early on in the construction period. This meant that traffic for the majority of visitors was re-routed to the staff entrance (also called the Film entrance), located just east of the closed main entrance. Because the lobby became smaller, there was not sufficient space to deal with peak crowds. This is where the kiosks made a positive impact. It helped us in splitting out our general admission line, as well as have multiple points of ticket sales. Kiosks are easier to move around, than moving ticketing desks. The first version of the kiosks yielded the following results:
- One important measurement was the average transaction time. The average transaction time for a visitor engagement staff member is around 40 seconds, and this became the target minimum for the kiosks. For the first proof of concept, we measured an average transaction time of 37 seconds for perfect transactions. A perfect transaction is where no errors occurred, be it a user error, system error or credit card failure.
- A second hypothesis was that visitors would prefer to transact in their native language. We provided a native flow in ten different languages, mimicking the website experience. Of the first tests, about 30% of visitors used a non-English flow.
- By intercepting a small sampling of kiosk users, qualitative observations were made. 96% gave the kiosks a high score on ease of use (4 or 5 on a scale from 1 to 5). 36% of users mentioned they chose the kiosks because they believed it is faster, while 62% used the kiosks because it was the first thing they noticed when walking into the museum. Only 7% of the interviewed visitors mentioned they liked the aesthetic of the kiosks. When asked about what information or features could be added 43% of visitors responded that they would prefer to not add any other features or information.
It was instantly clear that the kiosks were meeting expectations. Even though almost half of the interviewees preferred no extra features we did wonder if a self-service kiosk could address some other pain points.
Through this prototype effort, additional goals for the kiosks were formulated. Specifically,
- The team wanted more control over the user interface/user experience (UI/UX) of the kiosks as well as the ability to iterate faster over different features.
- The kiosks needed to fit the aesthetics of the newly designed lobby.
- Apart from general admission ticketing, some minimal membership functionality for the sale of membership guest tickets was added. An express renewal member functionality was also added.
- Chip/pin and tap payment options.
- The option of a digital ticket through a text message was introduced.
- A completely mobile and untethered kiosk model was introduced, which relied on a large chargeable battery and Wi-Fi.
Figure 13: Ticketing kiosk pages
Figure 14: Ticketing kiosk pages
Overall the reception of these new test kiosks, which evolved to the kiosks used for opening, running MoMA custom software was in line with the first version. Some learnings include:
- Chip payments were significantly slower than the swipe payments of the original kiosks. It added between 5 to 10 seconds to the total transaction time. This is due to the added security of chip payments. Chip payments are the industry standard. Because of the security benefits, this was an acceptable increase.
- Tap payment did not always work. This turned out to be a limitation in the payment processor, that, as of this paper, is still being investigated.
- Initially, only about 5% of member guest tickets were sold through the kiosks. Several factors accounted for this low percentage, such as the kiosk location and communication to members upon arrival at the lobby. Once the kiosk was moved specifically to the membership desk in the lobby, about 10% of member guest passes were sold through the kiosks. By additionally changing the software user flow slightly, and making the membership page the default page, member guest ticket sales on the kiosks jumped to 30%. It is also worthy to note that some members struggled with the scanning of their member card and would abandon the kiosk in favor of the membership associate.
- The last membership feature tested was the express renew. When a member goes up to the kiosk, scans their member card they would be able to renew another year to their membership. This feature was only tested on 2 days, 1 of which was exclusive to members. Only a handful of people used it to renew their membership. Further testing and refinement would be needed to make this a more permanent feature of the kiosks.
- The last feature tested in final weeks in the older lobby was the option to either print a ticket or receive a text message with a digital ticket. Only about 5% of the people buying a ticket via the kiosks opted to receive them via text message. When asked about the reasons for using the text message option the main reason was that it seemed more convenient. During this process, however, many visitors would remain in front of the kiosk while they waited for the text message to arrive. So between the entry of the phone number and the delivery of the text message this added about 30 seconds to the checkout time of the kiosk, basically doubling the goal transaction time.
Figure 15: Ticketing platform and kiosks
Scanning at Entry Points, Digital Member cards
MoMA’s new and expanded lobby now offers new pathways for exploring art, open free to the public, such as the Sculpture Garden and the new street level galleries, but also new entrances up into the main galleries. As with ticketing, entry points for scanning ticketed individuals can quickly back up, creating potentially long queues.
Figure 16: Scanned entry points for ticketed visitors
As a part of the effort to mitigate frustration for visitors, and also as a strategy towards creating a long term digital relationship with our visitors, MoMA introduced digital member cards for member constituents.
The digital member card is available for Apple Wallet on iPhone and Android users. After an initial prototype to understand usage and adoption with a digital card managed by a third-party vendor, MoMA decided to build the digital member card in house so as to have more control over the look and feel, as well as over the distribution and the reporting around usage.
These new digital cards were built native to both iOS and Android. New members can now receive their digital member cards within a few minutes of their membership purchase.
This digital card gets shared with new members and members that renew their membership. At the time of this writing, since the digital cards were broadly released in the Fall of 2019, about 13% of MoMA’s membership base have already downloaded the new card and of these, about 5% used their digital card to enter the museum. We anticipate these numbers to grow as more people become aware of them and as the ability to download becomes more broadly available through all MoMA digital channels (such as the MoMA membership website).
Coat check is a necessary yet generally unpleasant experience, especially in the winter or rainy months of New York. To help expedite this process, and working within the unchanging structure of the physical coat check space, the museum sought to look at, as with ticketing, a balance of staffing and new technology to make this process more tolerable.
Through the use of texting and automated bag queuing, along with trained coat check agents, MoMA was able to reduce average coat check-in and pick-up times from many minutes to an average less than 30 seconds. A visitor checking a bag would enter their phone number and receive a text confirming their bag drop off. For security purposes, a photo of their bag would be taken. The pick up would be the same process, Since phone number is used as the claim ticket, no exchange of a physical ticket was needed. Additionally, multiple numbers could be queued and software was integrated with the bag conveyor to automatically move to the next pickup slot. This reduced human error and sped up the pick-up process. Below is a flow diagram of the coat check drop off and pick up process in the new lobby.
Figure 17: Coat check process
While the primary purpose of implementing the new coat check system was to improve check in/check out times, a secondary goal was to understand visitors’ tolerance for receiving SMS text messages as a form communication, thus replacing the need for a physical claim ticket. At the time of this writing, 95% of coat check users have opted for to use their phone number as their claim ticket. This greatly exceeded MoMA’s expectations for text adoption.
What’s Next: Learn and Adapt
At the time of this writing, MoMA, in its new expanded space, has been open for about three months. Many things are working as expected and general visitation numbers already show an increase of over 30% in visitors, compared to the same period the year prior. But, three months is hardly enough time to draw any conclusion and over the next many months, and more likely, years, the team will continue to learn and adapt.
This paper represents the immense contributions and collaborative work over three years of many MoMA teams, including individuals, past and present, of the Information Technology, Creative Team, Membership, Curatorial, Development, Education, Visitor Engagement, Security and Operations, Retail, Finance, Accounting, and Internal Audit departments.
Pan, Diana, Darrough, Shannon and Vanmechelen, Rik. "Reimagining the Museum Lobby." MW20: MW 2020. Published February 4, 2020. Consulted .