Tag Archives: exhibitions

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.

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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.

 

 

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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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Songlines and the coded memory

On a recent visit to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, I was shown evidence of fossils which were the earliest forms of life on earth and saw some amazing Indigenous Rock Art. When you visit an ancient landscape with such natural beauty and spirituality, it encourages you to look deeper into the rich culture of our First Australians.

I am slowly beginning to understand the connection of Indigenous people to country after visiting the Flinders Ranges  and having listened to 702 ABC radio’s Conversations with Richard Vidler. Richard interviewed  Lynne Kelly about her book “The Memory Code”. Lynne  has researched traditional Indigenous Australian songlines as a key to memory, unlocking many layers of information which have been encoded into the Australian landscape. Songlines can be shared through stories, songs and through traditional dance.

The strong unwritten and oral history of Aboriginal Australians is passed down by Elders within the community. So much of this knowledge is key to survival. Knowledge about the landscape, navigation, ancestral totems, food and medicine, trade routes, culture, law and history. Information is shared through stories, traditional dance and song. Kelly speaks about the way that non-written memory systems are coded into the natural and built environment. She believes that this system was not only used in Australia but may have been used by other ancient cultures around the world.

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The understanding of  the way that Songlines work has changed my thinking about the damage caused by the removal of Indigenous Australians from their connection to country. This must have had a devastating impact – causing much pain through the loss of culture and access to  key information for survival. Australians can empathise with other displaced peoples around the world and yet the issue on our our doorstep is even more complex. I’m not saying that colonial Australians did this on purpose but the end result is still the same and incredibly significant for our Indigenous people. I had these new thoughts on board when I attended the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to see Jonathan Jones’s exhibition “barrangal dyara (skin and bones)” which was  Kaldor Public Arts Project no.32.

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The Garden Palace, Sydney

Jonathan has reinterpreted one of Sydney’s great cultural losses which was the destruction of the vast Garden Palace in Sydney, which burned to the ground in 1882.

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Bleached gypsum shields forming the border of what was The Garden Palace

 

The Palace contained many Indigenous artefacts which were culturally significant and represented a link to country, part of the collective memory handed on from Elder to community and which can never be replaced.The loss was also greatly felt by the Colonials who lost many archival records, art works and museum objects (remembering that at this time there were no public museums or art galleries in Sydney, only in Melbourne). In a strange way there was some commonality of loss and understanding for all Australians arising from such a catastrophic event.

What I liked most about Jones’s interpretation was the way that the installation took the physical components such as the kangaroo grass meadow and thousands of bleached gypsum shields to mark the perimeter of the original Garden Palace. In addition, the soundscapes of 8 indigenous languages floated through the air, creating an atmosphere which took the observer into a different world. There were also daily conversations from historians, theorists, curators, artists, writers amongst the public program activities allowing the audience to reimagine the building and the history and cultural loss – both from an Indigenous and Colonial perspective. It was actually a great conversation starter.

I think that the arts have a lot to offer as far as highlighting social injustice and human rights issues – bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through increasing our awareness of the richness of Indigenous culture and the significance of “connection to country” and the sophisticated coding of unwritten knowledge into the natural environment. We have so much to learn and have an opportunity that our forbears  underestimated the value of.

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.

Musing on Text and Labels

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Persuasion – an exhibition of wartime propaganda art at the Australian National Maritime Museum

Many museums and authoritative museologists  have written guides or chapters in their books on producing text and labels (see VandA guidelines for example). As a Masters student visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I was given some good advice by art educator about looking at and learning from objects in a more creative way than just using text and labels. Now I have changed my approach to my own museum and gallery visits. I always focus on the objects first, and if they interest me, I read the text and labels. It’s like reading the book rather than seeing the movie. When you actually look at an object, you can use your own imagination to make a  decision on how connected you feel (if at all) to that object and what you see is not a predetermined response to the information given in the text panel or label (or audio tour for that matter).

I like to find out information about the objects that I connect with – their age, construction method, maker, provenance and the story behind their creation so I use the text panels or the internet for extra information about various artists or particular objects. For example, after seeing prints by Koizumi Kishio and Onchi Koshiro, I found that I had strong connection to the type of Japanese woodblock prints created by these Sosaku Hanga  artists who are not as well regarded as Ukiyo-e printmakers like Utamaro and Hiroshige. I love the fact that these “creatives” were involved in the process from start to finish and that they don’t use other artisans to design, carve and print their wood blocks. Their works on the surface don’t appear as complex and yet these artisans were highly skilled individuals. In another exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I learned about the animated installations by contemporary Japanese artist Tabaimo who creates thousands of detailed drawings which are laboriously scanned into her computer to create her wonderful works. These facts gleaned from text panels and further investigated on the internet added value to what I saw on display and my appreciation of the works that I initially connected to.

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Text panels of different heights at Old Government House, Parramatta for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Costume Exhibition in 2014.

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One instance of the text being too low for visitors to access easily. This problem has been corrected in the new 2016 exhibition.

Although officially the importance of text and labels has been recognised, theorised and documented, I still notice that many art galleries and museums are not getting it right.

When you track visitors in any gallery space, it is surprising how their behaviours can vary. Very few will stop and read all the labels and even fewer will read the labels in any kind of order and so it is important to grab their attention when you have a chance. Yes, labels must be accessible for wheelchairs and children but what about those with poor sight or the elderly who can’t bend down too far. Labels need to be in bold print and text must stand out from the background even if the lighting in the room needs to be dimmed for conservation reasons. I have seen elderly people nearly fall over while bending to see a poorly placed label. I have seen others struggle with text on an inappropriate background colour which makes it difficult to make out the words. I have seen visitors wasting time trying to find out information about an object when a label is missing or incorrect. Labels need to be visible to several viewers at the same time and able to be viewed from a distance. They should not be too detailed because their role is to enhance the experience of seeing the object rather than take over from the object.

The British Museum speaks about the use of “Gateway Objects” to catch the eye of the viewer with accompanying text to allow the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without having to read every single label in the exhibition. These objects aim to engage the audience quickly with enough information on the label to draw them into the exhibition or gallery. I guess that  my newly adopted technique is similar, but without well written labels may not always be as good as the constructed British Museum experience. Thinking about the short window of time to grab the audience’s attention – 30 seconds or so – and realising that the average visitor may spend less than 10 minutes in an exhibition……. museums really need to think about the importance of well designed and well written text and labels to accompany the objects on display.

See also:

Australian Museum – Writing Text and Labels which also discusses the audience response to text and labels.

Why have a museum collection? Lego to the rescue

Don’t get me wrong – I love Lego. It is a wonderful creative tool with endless possibilities but I am so sick of seeing it in museums and galleries as the main attraction.

Audience engagement is something that I’m passionate about. I don’t think that the museum sector can just sit back and wait for visitors to come through their doors because of a single exhibition or a Lego attraction. They need to build on relationships with their local communities and develop a substantial membership base, offering reasons for members to visit frequently. They need to be creative and flexible with their collections, providing a great package for tourists who may only physically visit the museum once in their lifetime and also for the “not so local”  visitor to give them a “taste” of what’s on offer. Realistically, a “taste” (and an entry price) which makes the visitor want to return to the museum the next time that they’re in town.

I don’t begrudge National Galleries Victoria (NGV) for harnessing Ai Weiwei’s talent to create a major new installation using Lego for the recent NGV Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibition (December 2015 April 2016). Weiwei’s crowd-sourced Lego work focused on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the internet and highlighted many of the current social justice issues facing all Australians. But seriously, everyone else needs to give Lego a miss for a while and work harder to attract visitors, particularly families, with innovative exhibitions and galleries using their own unique collections or borrowed works from other places which are in line with the stated vision and purpose of their space.