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.
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.
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.