Category Archives: GLAM sector

The NGV Triennial Giving Art to the People

Pae White’s colourful installation drawing in all ages

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest and possibly most well loved museum of art, founded in 1861. Its mission statement  – “To illuminate life by collecting, preserving and presenting great art” and perhaps the unwritten mission of “giving it to the people”.

NGV Triennial 15 December 2017-15 April 2018

In 2016 the NGV was the 19th most popular art gallery in the world with more than 2.6 million visitors across its two campuses. The ranking places the gallery in the company of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Visitors flock to the NGV Triennial in Melbourne

The NGV is not only Australia’s most popular art gallery, but one of the top 20 most visited art museums worldwide as revealed by the U.K’s  The Art Newspaper in its latest survey of global art museum attendance. Not a bad effort for a small country on the world stage. Australia’s population is around 24.8 million compared with the U.S.A.’s 326.8 million and U.K.’s  66.6 million people. This ranking was based on visitation to “Van Gogh and the seasons” from the 2017 Winter exhibition. (Note that another Australian art museum on the list was the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art with its 2016/17 Summer exhibition – Sugar spin: You, me, art and Everything.)

Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Rooms are always popular with visitors

The NGV held forty-nine exhibitions during 2016-17, including major retrospectives of international and Australian artists and designers, as well as focused displays of works in the NGV collection. The quality and variety of audience engagement initiatives presented in support of these exhibitions was extensive. They offered guided tours, audio tours, mobile phone apps, talks, lecture series and workshops as well as social events – such as the Friday Night events (aimed at capturing more of the younger audiences after work), the Summer Sundays music series and the NGV Kids Summer festival and supporting Kids spaces for some of the major exhibitions. For example – as part of the exhibition Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei (2015-2016), NGV Kids presented Studio Cats, a large-scale installation especially for children and families to draw upon creative connections between the two artists and their mutual love of cats.

The Gallery aims to present programmes that engage visitors in meaningful cultural experiences and to keep them coming back.

According to their audience research data, The National Gallery of Victoria enjoys one of the highest community participation rates in the world. 70% of their visitors are local from Melbourne and regional Victoria unlike many other international art museums where the majority of visitors are incoming tourists. This also indicates that the locals keep coming back which is what every cultural institution needs to strive for. This is what Nina Simon talks about most recently in The Art of Relevance but also in The Participatory Museum and her Museum 2.0 Blog.

For any Cultural Institution, the collection remains  fundamental to the audience engagement and education strategy. The thoughtful curation and presentation of historical and contemporary collections is a key museum management strategy for continuing and ongoing audience engagement. Colleen Dilenschneider regularly writes about this in her Know Your Own Bone Blog (most recently in Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA) and previously in Death by Curation).The NGV strategy is to ensure that its collection is accessible to the widest possible audience who may be unable to visit the museum through the ongoing work of the NGV Digitisation Project which is still progressing.

I have to disclose that I am already a big fan of the NGV and the way that they design their spaces. I visit the NGV each time that I am in Melbourne, so over many years have enjoyed both Summer and Winter exhibitions as well as taking time to learn about the permanent collection shown across both campuses (St Kilda Road and the Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square). On my recent visit I took in the inaugural Triennial at the National Gallery Victoria which on the surface (without actual audience data analysis) appears to be a great success. What I enjoyed most about this free experience was seeing the diversity of visitors attending the exhibition and the way that the work of 100 contemporary artists, architects and designers from 32 countries was juxtaposed against the existing works from the collection – which was great exposure.

Audience engagement with the art at NGV Triennial

I think that there is currently a cultural revival happening worldwide despite Government funding cuts trying to choke the Arts into submission. Creativity and cultural heritage feed the soul when so much about modern life seems to do the opposite. Now is a better time than ever for cultural institutions to offer their prospective audiences something new and different, to  re-energise and maybe even reinterpret their collections to be more inclusive, to build community and feed the souls that are weary of modern life and meaningless 24 hour connectedness to media, social media and globalised sameness. Keep leading the way National Gallery of Victoria and hopefully other cultural institutions in Australia will follow or at least just lift their game a notch.

Interesting reading:

Cultural Heritage and the City

Cultural heritage as a driver of economic growth and social inclusion

Creative Country

The value of culture

“The Museum is our backyard….” Do you have families visiting your cultural institution weekly?

Throwing back to this post about apartment dwelling families and Cultural Institutions in the city. Are you doing enough for frequent visitors with children?

Museum Whisperings

 

One of the most interesting facts that I have learned from visitor studies at the Australian Museum, Sydney, was that many “inner city dwellers” use the museum as their backyard (metaphorically speaking of course).

I found that a number of families live in apartments in the inner city and have taken out  membership to several cultural institutions and that they regularly bring children to come and play at the Australian Museum. I don’t mean running around kind of play but definitely spending hours at the museum (to escape their apartments) in the Search and Discover section of the museum or participating in craft activities (when available) at Kids Space. This was quite a revelation to me because I’ve never lived in a small flat with children. My four kids were brought up in the suburbs, 20 kilometres away from the city and had access to a backyard, local parks…

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The importance of Tracking and Observing Visitors in Cultural Institutions

I’m not a big fan of measuring the success of visitation to cultural institutions by simply counting the numbers of people through the doors. I don’t believe that numbers alone give a true picture of visitor engagement and they certainly won’t give any indication of the way that visitors respond to the various spaces within a given cultural institution.

I confess that I love tracking visitors inside museum spaces because I always have preconceived ideas about what is going on inside various galleries and exhibitions and I am constantly surprised by what is actually happening when I analyse my results. On one occasion, I was observing visitors passing through a newly opened exhibition. I was thinking how good it was that there were so many families coming into the museum for this exhibition and I expected certain outcomes from my tracking and feedback studies for the following reasons:

  1. Because it was a brand new exhibition space
  2. Because it was school holidays and wet weather
  3. Because it was free of charge to visit.

The tracking process  that I use involves mapping the exhibition floor plan, then adding objects to that map, numbered within a cluster group or individually, depending upon their size and the size of the gallery overall. I use a technique learned from Dr Lynda Kelly  involving timed entry and exit points, visitor groupings (individual, couple, family group), age groupings and an observational scale based on Judy Diamond’s chapter on observational tools to record the movement of people, using four categories for visitor engagement:

  • Ignore (I)
  • Skim (S)
  • Attend (A)
  • Engage (E)

Visitors who pass within two metres of an object or text panel but fail to stop are listed as Ignore (I). Visitors who look briefly at an object or text panel but fail to stop are listed as Skim (S) but those who stop briefly with both feet for two seconds are listed as Attend (A). Those visitors who stop and actively read text panels or look at displays are listed as Engage (E).

For the exercise mentioned above, what surprised me when I actually observed the individual visitors and tracked their pathway, was that what I thought I saw was not what was happening at all. When I analysed my results, I found that people weren’t really in the gallery for very long and definitely did not engage with the exhibits for a significant time period which was a lost learning opportunity. However, there were lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” and expressions of awe and wonder and very many photos taken of kids with various objects. Sadly, in most cases their curiosity was not sufficiently aroused for them to engage with the objects on a deeper level – by reading the associated text panels and using the interactive materials.

I’m not going to address the importance of  engagement for Transformative Learning outcomes in this blog post because it has been well covered in the literature and other museum blogs (see Dr Lynda Kelly’s blog posts for information on TL as well as a review of the literature). Secondly, when I track visitors, I don’t usually look at the cultural diversity of the audience but more their age group and the effects of their group status on how they move through the spaces. Again, a better brain than mine, Colleen Dilenschneider talks about misinterpreting or not interpreting data on diversity correctly in her recent post “Why Some Cultural Organisations Overestimate Success in welcoming Diverse Visitors” for those who want to think about visitors in an even broader sense.

The advantage of carrying out observational and tracking studies is that institutions can combine the collected data with visitor feedback surveys to get to know their audiences better and form a clearer picture of how people spend time within their walls. Such studies can highlight the parts of an exhibition or permanent space which are not being seen, being used properly or are not engaging visitors at all. Sometimes problem areas can be tweaked by making small changes to the space –  improved interior design, better text panels, signage, IT/general maintenance or even small changes to sound and lighting. It is interesting to see where people spend the most or least amount of time as they move through a cultural institution or specific exhibition. Other details can be recorded as well – such as:

  • Is there a particular item that is really popular with visitors?
  • Where do people stop and read text panels?
  • Are interactive displays working and easy to use?
  • Are there any blockages with the general flow of visitors?
  • Are there any blockages because of audio tours, queueing or people taking photographs?
  • In the case of couples and groups – is there some discussion about particular objects, interactives or related topics?
  • Are there any visitor comments which should be recorded as feedback to Front of House, Marketing or  Curatorial Management?

Visitors are usually unaware that they are being observed. Observers are often mistaken for floor staff and visitors may ask questions or give feedback just because they are there. Understanding how visitors use different spaces within a museum can help to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities in that institution’s engagement strategy. I’ve often noticed that it’s the unexpected spaces, guided tours and participatory events in museums that occupy visitors for longer. What is it that keeps bringing visitors back time and time again? Exhibitions come and go but the permanent galleries, regular programmes and new innovations keep people coming back. For the younger visitors (particularly 3-12 age group), cultural institutions offering:

  • Curriculum focussed school programmes
  • Kid’s trails and activities
  • Learning and discovery rooms
  • Creative kids spaces
  • Touch trolleys

seem far more popular with families than cultural institutions without family programmes. For younger visitors – creating art and craft, touching and examining objects, interactive play, conducting scientific experiments, being able to ask supervising staff a variety of thoughtful questions, interacting with living specimens, dressing up in costumes, enthusiastically following some kind of trail or just reading books and looking things up on the computers seems to enhance their participation. At other times I have observed docents leading school groups through gallery spaces and getting much better engagement and learning outcomes for children (in support of their school curriculum) than children passing through with families.

For adults – well designed, aesthetically pleasing interior spaces, themed talks, guided tours, after hours events and workshops can add value to the overall visitor experience. Perhaps this kind of engagement appears less threatening on the surface but is still focussed on learning and engagement. MuseumHack posted a recent article “Why Design is Important to Your Museum”. For me the key quote is that:

“In the age of the Internet, museums can benefit

from applying this principle of design to their

spaces, as well as the services they offer. What

makes museums unique is no longer the information

they contain, but rather the context they offer to the

objects within their collections.”

My observations have strengthened my opinion that visitors like to see the presence of facilitators, invigilators, educators, security and guides in the gallery or exhibition space and not a total DIY experience. Generally, I have observed that visitors:

  • stop to ask questions or for directions or assistance
  • might ask for extra information about a display or gallery
  • might have their own narrative to share triggered by seeing an object on display
  • may have feedback for the museum about their visit.

It seems a pity when the audience is captive in the space, not to utilise that opportunity for engagement and feedback and to build relationships with the public, particularly when museums and galleries are striving to be “must see” and “repeat” destinations. I can’t see the point of developing growth and management strategies for cultural institutions without measuring audience engagement and feedback. Pen and paper studies are time consuming but relatively cheap to conduct and actually give a true snapshot of what is going on at a given time and space. Perhaps  museums could learn from the mistakes of the department stores in the current economic climate. It may be that cutting floor staff numbers will not increase profits and will definitely detract from visitor engagement.

Further Reading:

Australian Museum. Tracking and Observation Studies. https://australianmuseum.net.au/uploads/documents/9301/tracking_studies.pdf

Steven S. Yalowitz & Kerry Bronnenkant.Timing and Tracking:Unlocking Visitor Behavior http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10645570902769134

Museum Team at USS Constitution  http://www.familylearningforum.org/evaluation/types-of-evaluation/timing-tracking.htm

Isaac Arnsdorf. The Museum is watching you. Online Wall Street Journal (2010) https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704554104575435463594652730

The Heritage Dilemma

I worry about the preservation of the world’s “cultural heritage”. To me, it’s a dilemma on a grand scale. I personally value cultural heritage – not just my own, but what I have seen in my travels and learned from others with different backgrounds. I also value art galleries and museums and all kinds of cultural institutions, but what about all the people who don’t? Is there a way to connect a higher proportion of world’s population to their heritage and does it matter in the long term?

Blue Mountains National Park, NSW, Australia

I have just completed an online course with FutureLearn called Cultural Heritage and the City from the European University Institute which got me thinking about cultural heritage in the first place. What does it mean to people and how can policy can be developed or improved in order to protect heritage for future generations? Ask yourself – “Who is responsible for protecting the world’s cultural heritage?” The course defined heritage as “the past which informs the present and the relationship that a community constructs with that past”. This includes specific places, religious or cultural practices and traditions where heritage provides a framework within which people are socialised.

Washington D.C., USA. The Post Office has been leased to Trump Hotels for 60 years. This heritage site has been renovated and repurposed but will not be lost to the State’s heritage portfolio.

On the world stage, cultural heritage is about more than just protecting sites, buildings and objects. There is also an “ intangible” facet which helps to build community through language, music or ritual which may be part of the local way of doing things (e.g. food preparation, welcome ceremonies, wearing of significant clothing etc.) I believe that everyone has a stake in the protection of heritage whether it’s on our doorstep or far away in places which may more vulnerable to destructive forces outside the control of the local population and heritage authorities.

Bluestone Lane cafe has started business in a New York church.

I concede that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes into play when considering why people value and connect to cultural heritage. People are time poor, under financial and personal stress, others are barely surviving in war zones or refugee camps or living in areas where they feel disconnected to their surroundings. Why would the preservation of cultural heritage be at the the top of their “list of priorities” even if UNESCO says so? Why is heritage important to us anyway?

Brighton Beach, Melbourne. These heritage beach boxes have become valuable real estate but are also a big tourist draw card.

In a homogenous society like Japan where the greatest proportion of residents have shared cultural values, is it any easier to develop protection and promotion strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage? The culture in Japan is ancient and deep rooted but after the Great Fire in Tokyo and WWII, the process of modernisation conflicted with some of the old values set by the declining aristocracy and religious authorities. Emiko Kakikuchi Ph.D writes, “After WWII, Japan’s heritage was treated as a national asset, but remained a relatively small part of society for a long time. However the importance of heritage values has recently been increasingly recognised and protection measures diversified as Japan has matured in terms of its society and economy. Today heritage is being integrated and linked closely with community development, and its protection is being carried out not only by government but also by various stakeholders.”

Indigenous Australian Rock Art in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia dates back thousands of years before Colonial settlement.

In my own country, Australia, there are contentious layers of cultural heritage and so who takes responsibility for its preservation overall? The Indigenous Australian layer dates back more than 40,000 and possibly 60,000 years. Aboriginal cultural heritage has historically been inextricably tied to the Australian landscape with Indigenous Songlines having been coded and embedded into the natural environment and passed down over time through stories, dance and song by community elders.

Carriageworks, Redfern, Sydney – repurposed train sheds now used  for events, as an exhibition and for weekend markets.

A second colonial heritage layer was laid down after the British established a penal colony in Sydney in 1788. Over time, other settlers arrived and became established, adding to European cultural heritage and introducing an ever changing built environment which is less than 230 years old. Such changes have directly and indirectly caused major damage to Indigenous Australians’ heritage (“tangible” and “intangible”) in inverse proportion to the growth of the European population in Australia.

More recently, a third layer has come into play – a newer migrant layer represented by many different cultures including Greeks, Italians, several waves of Lebanese migration, Maltese, German, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and others from Afghanistan, Syria, Africa, Iran, Sri Lanka etc (too many to mention actually). I’m calling this the multicultural layer of heritage. Each group has brought distinct languages and their own cultural heritage to be worked into the existing Australian heritage tapestry.

The course modules explored ways to protect, enhance and engage with communities in the future, as urban environments change and eat into historic built environments and significant natural landscapes? How can newly arrived migrants and refugees be connected to the heritage of the country that they are now living in, the country that they now call “home”? Have they brought their own heritage values in the “intangible” sense and left the “tangible” behind? Will they be willing to engage with new values in the future?

Some migrant connections to Australian history are real and “tangible”. For instance, both Parramatta and Sydney can demonstrate historic connections to Indigenous Australians, Colonial Australians and other migrant communities. There is both archaeological and material evidence to support these historical links in found objects, social history collections (clothing, utensils, letters etc.) as well as written research (newspapers, photographs and paper records from the past). We know that many First Nations people were well known in the colony. Bennelong and King Bungaree slipped back and forth between two cultures. Pemulwuy was notorious for his resistance activities against colonial settlement.There were Chinese market gardens in Parramatta and Sydney during colonial times and the colonials imported tea, silks and porcelain from China.They also accessed Indian cottons, muslins and spices for everyday use. There is evidence that Indian nationals came to Australia from British colonies in India as staff of the Colonial Government Officers. The Lebanese also came to Australia in colonial times as hawkers and traders who sold ribbons, lace and cloth for women’s and men’s clothing.

The trick is to find ways of connecting contemporary life with existing cultural heritage and formulating appropriate policies for the protection of heritage into the future. There may be special places which merit absolute protection under law, such as “intact” wilderness areas or particular and significant built areas. In urban settings, I believe that it is also possible to develop heritage strategies which allow for new urban development through the repurposing of some heritage spaces, finding new uses and new connections with the past enabling the community to value heritage in a more vibrant and attractive city.

There are many examples of cultural heritage capacity building using events which have been integrated into the strategies of cities. These may range from large events (such as the Olympics, World Expositions, Biennales and Triennals) to smaller events such as festivals held in Australia, for example – Chinese New Year, Parramasala, Festival of Sydney, Sculpture by the Sea or the Vivid Light Festival. The increased number of festivals in Australia and overseas demonstrates ways that we can celebrate our existing heritage as well as creating new cultural heritage for the future. Such events can be compared to an exhibition in a museum or art gallery. You may have regular attendees but you want to be more “inclusive” and attract new audiences to share with you. The “festival audience” is attracted by the content or theme, but in attending that festival might learn more about a different culture or heritage place which they would not normally embrace. Inadvertently, some of that cultural heritage may be infused into festival goers but it was not the original draw card.

“Disruption” is a buzz word heard in the business world but it can also be applied to heritage places and cultural institutions. I like the way that the “Off” movement was created in parallel to the European Capital of Culture programme in Marseille in 2013. “Off” challenged the official discourse of the ECC project, running grass roots and paradoxical programmes harnessing the cultural heritage of Marseille. The aim was to direct the audience towards appreciating Marseille’s cultural heritage by being “inclusive” rather than elitist.

I think that more cultural institutions, heritage organisations and festival organisers need to think about opening their doors to wider audiences to start conversations about heritage without making people feel uncomfortable about attending events. Museum Hack has been a disruptive force within the museum sector in the USA by enticing a new and different kind of audience to visit cultural institutions. They have managed to break the mould and attract “atypical” visitors into a range of institutions who were not reaching out to millenials.

A number of public events and festivals are open to the public free of charge. Behind this idea is the fact that cultural heritage belongs to everyone and should be accessible to people regardless of the socio-economic status of the community being focussed on. Even institutions that rely on permanent entry fees and special exhibition fees to stay afloat, occasionally offer free entry days to the public in an effort to broaden their audience reach. Communities that have faced the heritage dilemma head-on have reported that developing a strong heritage policy has helped them to build community by educating local people to feel a part of their history and to build a common future. Heritage protection has contributed to regional job creation and economic growth worldwide. There is growing emphasis on the economic impact of heritage activities and that by protecting cultural heritage, cities can boost their local economy through the provision of hospitality as well as cultural services.

Harbour Sculpture Exhibition at Clarke’s Point, Hunters Hill connecting business and community. Artists aim to present, support and encourage contemporary Australian sculpture that reflects the history and place of sculpture in Australia.

Celebrating Chinese New Year 2017 at Sydney Opera House. Bringing the population of Sydney together with overseas tourists to the heritage icon to celebrate the year of the Rooster on Sydney Harbour.

Chinese Year of the Rooster at Sydney Opera House 2017 attracted many visitors to the city.

Repurposed  Industrial heritage at Ballast Point Park, Birchgrove. Between 1788 and 1800, the point was used as a fishing and hunting ground for European settlers and as a source of ballast for ships returning unladen to Europe. The A$16m project included demolition and decontamination of the derelict industrial site with construction of steel stairways, recycled building rubble walls, artworks, shade structures, wind turbines and Australian native gardens.

The Tramsheds at Harold Park in Sydney, Australia – a repurposed industrial site which housed the former historic Rozelle Tram Depot. This restoration includes a dining precinct as well as 7 community-based retailers. The site now attracts local community as well as visitors from other parts of Sydney.

The heritage dilemma must be faced head-on if we are to manage the sites and traditions that remain in an uncertain world under pressure from an ever increasing and shifting population worldwide. I guess that the heritage dilemma can not be sorted out in a single blog post.

Useful further reading: UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development – understanding how the tension between heritage preservation and urban development has been resolved in practicehttp://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002459/245999e.pdf

Change and grow 21st century museum audiences.

The good thing about not working for a single museum (and believe me there are not many advantages to being a contract or casual worker) is that you get to see things as an outsider and are well placed to think critically about cultural institutions that don’t employ you. As an onlooker, I am always thinking about audience engagement at the museums, art galleries and heritage spaces that I visit (particularly the ones for which I have a paid yearly membership). In my paid employment, I have been lucky to have been supervised by one of the best – Dr Lynda Kelly (CEO Lynda Kelly Networks and formerly Head of Learning at The Australian National Maritime Museum) who embraces digital engagement in cultural spaces and advocates the importance of evaluating the museum audience experience at every point of contact – before, during and after the visit. I am also a big fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog (and new website), “Know Your Own Bone” and 3 minute YouTube videos  (for those who don’t have time to read) which give tremendous insight into cultural organisations, their audiences and their markets. Kelly and Dilenschneider really make you think about museums in the 21st century and how they will grow their actual and online  visitor numbers to protect the future of their cultural organisations.

Image result for knowyourownbone

There are some current “disruptive techniques” available for the marketing and presentation of new experiences to keep current visitors actively involved in cultural organisations whilst growing new audiences and developing new community relationships. The MuseumNext  conference held in Melbourne, Australia earlier this year had speakers from all over the globe sharing their knowledge and experience with participants. The main topic for discussion was “risk”. Museums, like other cultural organisations, need to take more risks if they want to grow their audiences. This is not about putting collections or staff in any danger, but about “thinking outside the box” and doing things a little differently. It is also not about cutting staff and  handing over the reigns to an external consultant who really doesn’t know the museum or the value of specific collections let alone understand the overworked  back of house functions (curatorial, education, conservation, research and volunteers). It is about best practice and the collective future for museums and better ways to interpret and present collections, by engaging and changing the perception of existing audiences, creating new audiences in the physical museum space and online, embracing technology, encouraging visitor participation and fostering innovation within cultural institutions worldwide.

Taking calculated risks can also be interpreted as “disruption” in cultural institutions. Organisations like to think that they have a “vision” and strategic plan for the future but 

  • are activities being done the way that they were always done?
  • are audiences the same as they always were?
  • are the needs of the staff more important, equal to or less important than those of the audiences?
  • is the marketing function bringing superficial numbers through the door more important than the curatorial and back of house functions who maintain collections, design exhibitions, create educational programs and digital content behind the scenes?
  • Is the team behind the scenes as harmonious and cohesive as the face being presented to the public?
  • is the institution well funded and well managed with strong leadership and direction?

There are so many issues to consider and the issues will vary depending upon the size of the organisation, the collection involved, the existing membership base and the statutory and funding model for the cultural institution in question.

For the 21st Century Museum engaging new and different audiences is critical. How does an organisation like Museum Hack become a “disruptive force” in an established cultural institution? They look with new eyes. They work with organisations “to create new content, strengthen existing programs, build social media prowess, reach new audiences, and increase relevance and engagement”. They set out to engage new audiences and increase audience diversity by thinking outside the box – encouraging a new relationship between visitors and the collections in the museum space and for this interaction to be about learning and fun.

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It could be argued that many museums put time and effort into curating their spaces and educating the public but unless the output is measured and analysed then the “facts and figures” may be misleading. Counting numbers through the door and anecdotal observations are not sufficient in comparison to quantitative results from well orchestrated visitor studies and qualitative reports gleaned from well designed visitor feedback surveys. Ceri Jones’s review article on “Enhancing our understanding of museum audiences: visitor studies in the 21st century” quotes David Fleming as saying  that “ if museums are to be serious about their social role, understanding the needs, motivations and expectations of visitors (and non-visitors) is critical to their mission, values and decision-making processes (Fleming 2012)”.

While academics in the museum industry may not like the style of Nina Simon’s new book, Art Of Relevance, I love the way she writes about cultural institutions and the need for them to remain relevant with audiences into the future if they want to survive. I particularly like the way she looks at “insiders” and “outsiders”, which is what Michelle Obama spoke about at the opening of the new Whitney Museum extension that I mentioned in my previous post. Obama spoke about the way that some sectors of the community feel that they don’t belong or wouldn’t be represented in their local cultural institutions and Simon speaks about finding “new doors” to open which makes people feel welcome rather than left outside.

In 2016, Chloe Hodge wrote an editorial for Artsy, “As Attention Spans Dwindle, How Does a Museum Capture New Audiences?” which gives examples of three museums adopting new approaches to engaging new audiences and building relationships with the local community. Panama’s Biomuseo has used architecture and design to try to draw in the locals to engage with the biodiversity of their environment in a country without any true museum culture. The environmentally sustainable building aims to reconnect locals with the outdoors and encourages visitors to act on their social conscience by protecting their plant and animal species and thinking about Panama’s global responsibilities.

Berlin’s Museum Island (Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Bode, Pergamon, and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM)) have adopted a programme used by Museum für Islamische Kunst and a group of Syrian archeology students who became asylum seekers in 2011. “Multaqa: Museum as Meeting Point,” involves the training of Syrian and Iraqui refugees as museum guides and their weekly tours in the Arabic language have opened up the museum collections as conversation starters for refugees who have been disconnected from their own countries. A spokesperson for DHM explains that “When the refugees see images of a completely destroyed Germany and then compare this to what we have now, it gives them hope that Syria, in particular, might once again be a working state. We in Germany tend to forget that Europe was once, too, divided by religious wars and the whole continent destroyed.”

In London’s East End, The Victoria and Albert Museum was seen as partly being to blame for the loss of social housing and the gentrification of the area used for the London Olympics. They are now employing and training East Londoners to ensure that the museum is a product of the area, with a broad appeal for local audiences who can relate to local staff. Three worthwhile innovative strategies chosen by Hodge for discussion in her piece.

There are other ideas for smaller institutions with little budget for large marketing campaigns. Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre has been subsidising the cost of a theatre tickets to disadvantaged young people and running workshops in the arts for people with disabilities by asking theatre goers to donate to the Riverside Theatre’s education programme. Being proactive in engaging new audiences who might otherwise have been left outside the door is one way to ensure the future of the cultural institution, particularly when the experience is a positive one.

Hannah Hethmon wrote about inexpensive social media marketing for smaller cultural institutions in her blog post “Guerilla Marketing Tips for small museums”. She speaks about investing time and energy rather than money to attract new audiences using social media tools which target visitors who are not regulars and may be persuaded to visit by an influencer that they follow on Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook to visit a museum in response to a post which calls them to action.

Museums in the 21st century have to fight hard for a slice of the recreational dollar. In Australia, there are demographic changes to the cities, changes in cultural diversity, generational changes and changing in access to technology which affect the way cultural organisations are viewed and valued by the population in general. To grow in the future, cultural organisations must know how they are placed with respect to all of the above and take some risks in the future to remain relevant to their current audiences and to attract new visitors. It won’t just be about sharing collections and heritage spaces and places but about exchanging knowledge, being safe places to visit, being affordable and welcoming to everyone.

 

 

Do admission prices stop museums from growing audiences?

After doing a ticket pricing survey for Front of House at the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2016, I started researching articles about the benefits of free entry to museums and art galleries compared with charging admission and whether or not this does impact on visitor numbers. Interestingly, many articles reported that it made no difference and that people who valued the museum experience came with or without an entry charge. Even with free entry, there was a debate about whether new visitors would start coming and if the number of new visitors increased as a proportion of the total number of visitors on an annual basis. As I was digesting the information, I came across Colleen Dilenschneider’s article Admission Price is not a Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation.

Dilenschneider says that cultural institutions need to get real about the barriers to visitation and the excuses which organisations make without really knowing their audiences. Critical thinking, visitor surveying and feedback and the analysis of current audiences would go a long way towards understanding the real reasons that people don’t visit cultural institutions. She believes that admission pricing is not the main barrier and that using that excuse stops these organisations from identifying the true barriers to increasing numbers and diversifying their audiences and which may include the presentation of content to interpret their collections, site accessibility for visitors and the relevance of a cultural  institution to the general public rather than its current targeted membership audience.

In saying that, Dilenschneider says that organisations still need to:

  • Be competitive in their pricing relevant to other cultural institutions and nearby attractions
  • Have specific events or sessions for low income visitors where entry is free or more affordable
  • Understand that cultural organisations compete with other recreational activities for “time poor”  and “financially stretched” visitors – particularly families
  • Realise that some people just aren’t interested in visiting cultural organisations no matter how you present to them, and that’s OK.

When Michelle Obama spoke at the opening of the new Whitney Museum in New York,  she said that for many cultural groups in the community, museums are places that they do not feel welcomed and do not see themselves in. Considering that 9% of core visitors to museums in the US fall into “the minority group” category, that is largely out of balance with the 28% found in the general population. I think that Michelle Obama’s comments would apply to minority groups in cultural institutions anywhere in the world. I wrote earlier about the role of Museums in the 21st Century and the fact that they need to find a “connectedness” to people by championing human rights and social justice issues in their exhibitions. Since these issues often relate to “minority groups”, it would be a great avenue for people to start new conversations and make emotional connections to a cultural institution while exploring its collections which suddenly seem more relevant.

In her article Why Free Museums Matter, Jessica Leigh Hester wrote about Museum Day in the US, where 1200 museums allowed free entry to pre-booked visitors (and a guest) in order to engage different visitors to the museum and shed the reputation that only certain visitors are allowed in the rarified atmosphere of a museum. She explained that Museum Day is part of an ongoing campaign to chip away at the negative perception “that visitors must be a certain type of person” or have “a certain level of education or expert knowledge” in order to gain entry to an art gallery or museum. 

In the UK, the Museums Association reported on all the changes brought about by the Government in the eighties to cut funding to museums which meant that some museums could no longer support their free entry policies. In 2001 when funding was reinstated for National Museums in England, Scotland and Wales, the numbers of visitors increased with a hope that different kinds of groups would visit. Data analysis showed that there were more people visiting (or repeat visiting) but that they had the same profile as those that had previously been paying to visit the same cultural institution. MA commented that “It takes imaginative programming and marketing to change an audience profile significantly, as well as sustained development work with communities with no tradition of museum visiting.”

One of my favourite examples of museums increasing the diversity of their audiences is IKON Gallery in Birmingham, UK who began their Black Country Voyages Project in 2014, taking art to young people in the UK Midlands via a canal boat on the Black Country waterways which were used to transport mined coal and other minerals in years gone by. The project aims to build relationships with young people who have previously had no relationship with the Gallery, thus building  their audience using both the outreach method as well as running inclusive Family Programmes at the IKON Gallery itself.

I’m not sure why some people value museums and others don’t but I am sure that if children can connect to museums and art galleries from an early age, then it is a really good way to encourage lifelong learning and feeling good in the museum space as they get older. Something that really heartens me is that so many museums (even those short on funding and resources) have School Programs, Early Learning Programs and Family Programs in place. When I chat to people in the museum space, many adults have come back with children who visited on a school excursion, begged to be taken back and are now proudly showing their parents/carers around. I often see people with prams, kids doing art classes, vacation care groups inside the museum, which was definitely not the case when I was growing up or when I tried to visit some cultural institutions when my own kids were small.

Kids activity sheets, interactive stations and audio tours for exhibitions are springing up everywhere. Kids invigilators, teacher guides and child focussed volunteers can really make a visit something to remember. These kinds of activities should be affordable for all socio-economic groups. I understand that not everything can be free because staffing and materials for children’s activities can be quite expensive but there should definitely be a focus on price for this sector if cultural institutions want to attract a different kind of visitor.

Another reason to focus on this sector is that I’ve identified a shift in visitation for the “apartment dwelling” family particularly in the inner city of Sydney – close to some of the major cultural institutions. Many parents/carers are bringing younger children into the museum on a weekly or fortnightly basis since there is no room at home. In the  near future, it won’t be sufficient to run just school holiday or weekend activities. Next generation visitors will need access to space which offers new and different things to see and engage with on a regular basis. There are all kinds of possibilities for such a space – from the typical dress ups and books, to collection access, to craft activities or age appropriate digital engagement areas. These repeat visitors would gain great value from a museum membership but if museums don’t deliver and make people feel welcome then they will be looking for a new places to go with their children.

Maps versus Staff on the Museum Floor

When I am physically in the museum space, whether observing or surveying visitors, people always talk to me and ask me questions. I have no doubt from my observations that people like to see museum staff on the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the museum arms people with maps, touch pads, audio tours or text panels – visitors like to talk to real people. They have questions, they want directions and most of all they want to give you feedback about the things that they are seeing and doing in the museum. They want to tell you what they like, they want to tell you what you are doing well, what should be on display and they want to tell you about other museums doing similar things better than you are.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Museums need to know their audiences and they cannot possibly know them if they don’t do a little face to face work, rather than just counting numbers in galleries. Exhibitions need not be static places. Even if the exhibit layout is “perfect” from the curator’s viewpoint, there will always be room to tweak the exhibit in some way – whether it’s a text panel/ label, training “front of house” staff and educators/guides about a new exhibition space, doing continuous maintenance or just ensuring that museum visitors are making the most of any exhibition or permanent gallery on any given day.

I have seen many front of house staff appear exasperated that visitors can’t find their way around an art gallery or museum – even with a map. The fact is that maps are prepared by people who are familiar with the workings of a particular space and so a map already makes sense to them. In reality, people move through museums and art galleries  intuitively and so it’s better to build on that natural movement or provide them with really clear directions via gateway text panels and objects or pathways within the space.

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New entry to the Australian Museum

For example, at the Australian Museum, there is a gentle slope leading from the Museum’s new point of entry into the Wild Planet gallery. Sadly, most people intuitively turn right into the Skeleton Hall and then climb the stairs (even with strollers!) into Wild Planet which totally defeats the purpose of having a new entrance. When visitors move through the Skeleton Hall, they miss the Help Desk and the Museum shop and often become disoriented about using the lifts, ramps and stairs to the upper galleries. There is a museum map but people just follow their noses. If welcome staff were placed at the entrance to the Skeleton Hall armed with maps and information, they could offer visitors the alternative pathways – pointing out the lifts and the easy access ramp to Wild Planet.

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The British Museum uses “gateway objects” as an effective way to lead audiences on a trail through their galleries engaging them with bigger stories and themes.

I mentioned in a previous Blogpost (Musing on Text and Labels) that the British Museum uses “Gateway Objects” in museum galleries to catch the eye of the viewer and to give the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without them having to read every single label in the exhibition. Through the clever use of design, someone entering the gallery will immediately be able to follow a trail of key objects through the gallery without needing a map or having to read everything to comprehend the purpose of the space. The same technique could be used for the whole museum and not just for a specific exhibition or permanent gallery. It isn’t as important for members or frequent visitors but for the unfamiliar visitor or one-off tourists, it could be the key for them to sample what’s on offer at the museum without having to struggle with maps or having to read every text panel which usually results in “museum fatigue”.

A great article in Hyperallergic spoke about an interactive mapping approach  by students in the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Visual Narrative program. The students developed a number of creative, interactive maps for the Metropolitan Museum of Art  which look way more interesting than the map in the link on the MMA website. Interactive maps are great but I don’t think that I’ve come across a museum yet with perfect access to free wi-fi in every room. It seems to be either intermittent or timed for 10 minutes or have some complicated temporary sign-up method (even worse if you don’t speak the language!).

One positive step that I have noted on the home page of most museum and art gallery websites is the “Plan Your Visit” tab which often links to an interactive or downloadable map so that you can think about the visit ahead of time. I still believe that there should be a “Taster Tour” tab where time poor visitors can at least plan for a taste of the museum’s vision and collection. With greater digital support of the collection, they can “engage” further online after their visit and at their leisure if they can’t physically revisit the space. Staff on the floor can really enhance the experience for these visitors by providing directions or insight into what is on display and the importance of some of the objects to the museum collection.

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