I spend a lot of time in cultural institutions for work and for leisure. In my visitor research work, I’m talking to and observing visitors in a variety of museums. Museums are constantly changing and evolving but I still believe that the most important thing for any cultural institution to do, is to get to know their audience. Listening to what people say and feeding those thoughts back into the strategic planning process is as essential as managing the collection and the museum space itself.
There is much written about engaging new audiences, but honestly, I don’t think that it’s all that simple. One size does not fit all. Larger institutions have a far greater capacity to connect with visitors at every level because they tend to have very large collections and lots of staff specialised in all the different areas of museology – including Front of House, Visitor Services, Security, Curatorial, Marketing, Events, Learning and Education, Children’s Programs, General programs, Membership, Conservation, Retail and Cafes – not to mention that they also tend to have an army of willing Volunteers.
Smaller museums might be lucky to have a few paid staff ( Management/ Curatorial staff, Visitor Services) and/or volunteers. They may be under the umbrella of a large organisation (e.g. National Trust of Australia) or be operated by a small self-managed historical society (a group of interested Volunteers) as a labour of love.
There are three important things that any Museum, large or small, can do if they see themselves as part of the world-wide collective movement of cultural institutions wanting to build cultural heritage values in communities now and into the future –
Know your brand. Cultural Institutions need a point of difference that makes them stand out from the crowd. Large and small museums are in competition for visitor’s leisure time and it’s really important to use that point of difference about each site and/ or collection and not to look the same as other museums in the area with similar permanent galleries and exhibitions.
Know your audience. Who is interested in your museum and why? If you are not thinking about the visitor’s perspective and the personal, social and cultural contexts which affect their experience at your museum – then why bother at all? It is paramount to audience engagement to ensure that permanent galleries/ exhibitions and the museum’s interface with the public is the best that it can be and that audience engagement can be measured pre and post visit. If you don’t know your audience, then how can you manage your site better and increase your visitor numbers. For inspiration look at two example case studies “Centering Disabled Arts and Audiences” and “Finding Family Audiences”.
Know your limits. This is very much about your vision and mission. You can’t be everything to everyone but you can ensure that your collection (if you have one) and site is shown off to the max and that it is accessible to visitors in a physical and digital sense. You can always improve on keeping your members happy at the same time as you work on your audience reach. You can spend a lot of time and effort extending your reach only to alienate the regular visitor population who feel that the museum context has changed for them – “It’s been dumbed down’’, “It’s like a kid’s playground – I want to learn ” and “I don’t belong here anymore”. This takes you back to basics in knowing your brand and what face you want to present to your audience using your unique site and/or collection.
This post has been written as a conversation starter and as a thought provoker. To really understand the museum experience from an audience perspective, I recommend going back to basics via the museum gurus – Falk and Dierking in their book “The Museum Experience Revisited “ (2013). I also recommend many of the online articles below. It can save a lot of time and money to read what other people have already done in this field rather than starting from scratch. Smaller operations can also head to their Peak Body and Association websites for inspiration and guidance on all kinds of subjects from Conservation to Emergency procedures etc.
Just as I was about to publish this post, I came across an article by Jasper Visser called “When your museum isn’t attracting people” which actually builds on some of the discussion above. It’s definitely worth a read.
Falk, J. and Dierking, L. (2013). The museum experience revisited. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press.