Heritage-based museums: how to create an authentic experience from scratch?

Creative Industries & Culture

publication date 19/01/2017

Cézanne’s studio attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year.

This nearly empty space (only a few familiar objects of the painter are exhibited within the room) fascinates Cézanne’s admirers. Visiting the place is a way to intimately feel the presence of the painter and to enjoy an authentic feeling experience. But why are visitors so captivated by such a plain and bare place? What makes the experience so intense? What processes can lead the invisible to becoming an authentic experience?

A recent study states that staged authenticity and the invisible both influence the visitors’ experiential perceptions, imagination, and knowledge of the artist.

33 semi-directive in-depth interviews were conducted at Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence after attendees had completed their visits. Content analysis led to identifying key themes that describe how imagination at work during the visit creates an authentic experience. More specifically, results show that material dimensions (e.g., the studio setting, familiar objects, and guides – staged authenticity) mixed with immaterial dimensions (e.g., Cézanne’s aura, stories, and atmosphere – the invisible) stimulate visitors’ imagination through immersion, embodiment, and narrative transportation. The study illustrates the contagion of the tangible by the invisible, and also underlines that consumers are committed to their quest for authenticity through their involvement in imaginative processes. Indeed, they are not mere passive “consumers”, but co-producers of their own experience, by providing meaning and value to it.

A conceptual model based on findings was developed that can be used as a diagnostic instrument to identify and test imagination processes in different settings, such as heritage-based museums or historical reconstructions. Curators and managers of heritage-based sites should focus on exploring ways to propagate the immaterial or intangible aspects and embrace the power of visitors’ imagination. Sufficient empty space is necessary to provide visitors with the freedom to project their imagination, engendered by the confrontation with a few items (sacred objects or emotionally charged ones), or to fill gaps in the story conveyed to them. The access to an almost empty physical space enables visitors to create their own experiences, to be immersed or transported. Material aspects of the heritage-based site must be carefully thought out so that “customers” perceive its aura of authenticity.

Finally, to ensure that visitors (experts or novices) fully enjoy the experience of the heritage-based site, managers might focus their communication on their potential customers in the pre-visit phase, for example by providing more information about the artist on their website. They could also customise the experience by organising adapted group tours based on the visitors’ depth of knowledge of the artist. 

Derbaix M., Gombault A. (2016). Selling the invisible to create an authentic experience: imagination at work at Cézanne’s studio. Journal of Marketing Management, 32(15-16), 1458-1477.