Category Archives: visitor feedback

Museums in the 21st Century

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Destination Sydney at Mosman Art Gallery

So many well regarded museologists have spoken about the role of museums in this century. Nina Simon is a strong believer in museums working with their communities, Ed Rodley writes about the museum as contact zone and debates the museum models for “traditionalists” versus “progressives”. Seb Chan believes that museums are playing catchup with their digitisation programs and that it is important for museum staff to reinforce the value of the physical visit in all the thinking and planning for their visitors.

I recently participated in a MOOC (a free Massive Open Online Course) by the University of Leicester and Liverpool Museums – Behind the Scenes in 21st Century Museums. The course built on some of the thoughts and issues discussed in articles by Simon, Rodley and Chan – such as growing museum audiences, creating emotional connections between visitors and collections/exhibitions, as well as the role of museums in starting conversations about social justice, human rights, health and well being etc.

When I consider all of the information above, the word that summarises museums in the 21st century for me, is “connectedness”, and the relationship of each museum to its audience. You can examine any of the issues raised above and in every case, it’s about having flexible ideas and staying connected to your audiences, no matter what museum model you are channelling. An article by Holland Cotter from the New York Times in 2015 discussed the fact that there is no single museum  model and that museums will be defined by “the role that they play as a shaper of values” and “the audience that they attract” rather than just their architecture and contents.

What are Museums in the 21st century?

Museums are about – vision, collections and exhibitions, context, meaning and shaping community values. Museums are connecting to the public in many ways, through – Community
Digital interface
Architecture
Collections and exhibitions
Physical location
Physical visits
Educational programmes
Acting as the contact zone for conversation between divergent groups
Addressing social justice, health and wellbeing issues
Growing audiences
Strategic marketing and publicity

 

To achieve all of the above, the financial and time commitment by museum management behind the scenes is huge. The many hours required to maintain collections and exhibits, develop educational programmes, design and curate exhibitions, streamline security, IT and the Front of House interface, maintain social media presence and continue with the digitisation of collections, train paid and volunteer staff and build membership and audience numbers can often be underestimated because this work isn’t “seen” by the public or “understood” by government funding bodies.

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Destination Sydney at S H Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill

It’s good to see some of the smaller Sydney museums pulling together to create an exhibition such as the recent  Destination Sydney at Mosman, Manly and the S H Ervin Galleries. They used one curator to create an exhibition which could stand alone in each space, but combined showed 9 iconic Sydney artists drawn from major private and public collections. According to a report by Museums and Galleries of NSW the exhibition drew a much larger audience for all three galleries and greatly increased retail sales. Another report on the UK Museums and Heritage website talks about the collaborative work being done by museums in Bath to gain a greater market share of visitors to the region which has a number of heritage attractions competing for local and tourist numbers. Jointly the museums have worked to develop audiences, engage community and be more strategic in their marketing and publicity in order to create a more sustainable and resilient museum sector.

It’s hard to predict the future for museums, but constant introspection and learning from the experience of others goes a long way to ensuring that visitors will keep coming through the doors.

Eating in Museums and Art Galleries

Apart from the The Southern Museum of Food and Beverage in New Orleans and the Australian Museum in Sydney, you don’t hear of many museums which allow food and drink into exhibition spaces.

Call me old fashioned but I don’t like to see people eating and drinking as they wander around the museum – it isn’t really good practice, particularly when there are touch screens and objects on display which will be handled by thousands of hands. I guess when museum staff are so brainwashed about the correct procedures for caring for collections, it is not helpful having mixed messages within the museum or art gallery space.

I’m not saying that visitors should have to buy food from the Museum Cafe, but surely most large museums  have appropriate designated spaces set up for visitors to eat (preferably near a handwashing facility or bathroom) which can accommodate families and ensure that objects in the galleries have greater protection and  longevity.

In addition, there are risks and/or  OH and S concerns around having food near the objects. Some examples that come to mind are:

  • The risk of spills and wet patches being hazardous to other visitors or damaging electronic equipment or  the objects on display.
  • Consider the risk of a visitor bringing peanuts/or peanut butter sandwiches (or any allergen) into the gallery space triggering an anaphylactic reaction in an “at risk” visitor who touches the same screen or object.
  • The diminished aesthetic value of the museum space when rubbish generated by visitors is left behind in the galleries.
  • The implications for pest management in the galleries which is already an issue in many museums.

A quick Google search of websites of some of the most popular museums in the US and UK shows most have stated clearly that  “no food or drink” can be taken into the museum. To assist visitors, museum websites should clearly state their policy on eating and drinking in the museum. This can be reinforced by front of house staff as visitors arrive. It’s important to make things easy for visitors – telling them about onsite cafes and nearby food outlets and pointing out the designated eating areas onsite which do not include the galleries themselves.

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

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 and plenty of local group activities nearby. We would often travel to the city for a museum visit but would not visit regularly.

This is an interesting discovery for any city based cultural institutions. Most museums want to grow their memberships and attract repeat visitors and be known as being family friendly. If city dwellers are visiting often with children, particularly the preschool age group – are museums doing enough to keep those families and children interested? The usual museum approach would be to develop the Summer Blockbuster exhibition and limit most of the child focussed activities to school holidays  but perhaps there are a number of children not at school who could benefit from some permanent free play spaces and child focussed exhibits all year round. Such spaces need not be underutilised and would be attractive to interstate and international visitors as well as school groups on excursions all year round. I have noticed that there are large numbers of European tourists visiting Sydney in the northern hemisphere’s Summer months and it would be interesting to look at the statistics on China and South-East Asia as well as visitors from North America travelling with children.

At any time of year I would recommend that cultural institutions help families to plan their visit by providing a link on their websites. For example the Smithsonian Top 10 Kid’s Tips or ensuring that your museum is mentioned in an article like The 10 best Family Friendly Galleries in London.  Many museums, libraries and galleries do offer programs for families and put a lot of thought into being “family friendly” but they may not have thought about satisfying the frequent visitor or tourist that might not visit during school holidays or on weekends when most of these programs are available?