Tag Archives: museum audiences

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.

 

 

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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Museum Digitisation – A Case Study

I support the digitisation of museum and gallery collections. There are so many places that I’d like to go to but realistically I won’t have the time or money to travel to all the destinations that I have on my bucket list. Enter the digital museum. Museums with a strong digital presence allow the virtual visitor at least some entrée into their collections. When collections are digitised it also assists researchers access to a wealth of new information to study without them ever having to leave the comfort of their own home.

One of the best stories that I’ve read recently was in Cosmos Magazine[1] which reported on The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership launching the Qatar Digital Library – a new bilingual, online portal which provides access to previously undigitised British Library archive materials relating to Gulf history and Arabic science. Their vision was to prepare the people of Qatar and the region to meet the challenges of a changing world by leading innovation in research and education[2]. (See Fig 1.)

Fig 1. Home page of Qatar Digital Library

The British Library (in London, England) has amassed one of the world’s greatest research collections and with the Qatar Foundation has undertaken a huge project to digitise more than half a million pages from their collection consisting of images, manuscripts, maps, sketches, personal archives and East India Company Office Records. The project is an ideal example of the role of the contemporary curator who as part of a project management team of curators, cataloguers, conservators and digitisation experts works to create a valuable online digital resource[3] from a significant collection of objects located in the British Library. The Qatar Digital Library[4] aims to bridge the gap between past and the future by providing access to information about the history and heritage of the Gulf and Arabic science. Before digitisation, researchers would have manually searched a printed catalogue or physically visited the library to access a particular item which would then be retrieved from the archives.

One of the pages now accessible online

One of the maps from the archive now available to study online.

The web-based, interactive, multilingual information is more searchable and accessible for new audiences in Qatar, the UK and other online researchers and hopes to inspire new forms of interpretation from the original historic documents. The project has created high quality contextual and interpretative material to facilitate the use and understanding of the digitised content. Digital technology has provided a  platform for the discovery of history from the gulf region by allowing access to the original primary source scientific documents in Arabic which can be reinterpreted in the future without physically visiting the British Library.

As part of the process, the curator has taken primary sources, such as a photograph album, showing the everyday life in Afghanistan (social, architectural, trade) during a one month period, and digitised the pages allowing the voice of the object to come alive for the researcher. Supporting text has been added to contextualise the objects for the online audience in the same way that they would be supported by curatorial staff in the British Library.[5]

In order to encourage new audiences, the project team has actively tested the portal with possible users such as academics, archivists and young people, to find out what they need from the content and how they would use the collection for their own purposes. The feedback has been used to create a better system. The online catalogue is intuitive and researchers will be able to access the collection more easily than the original objects in the British Library. Evaluation of the new website will be carried out to determine the project’s success by measuring website users, site feedback, media coverage and other Key Performance Indicators.

References:

[1] New Digital Home for 1,000 years of Arabic scientific manuscripts viewed online at http://blog.cosmosmagazine.com/blog/2014/10/28/new-digital-home-for-1000-years-of-arabic-scientific-manuscripts?rq=Qatar%20digital%20library viewed online 20/2/2016

[2] Qatar Foundation vision and mission statement viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/qatar/ on 20/2/2016.

[3] The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2015/january/british-library-and-qatar-foundation-extend-partnership-to-digitise-images-of-gulf-history  on 20/2/2016

[4] Qatar Digital Library viewed online at http://www.qdl.qa/en on 20/2/2016

[5] Some of the information cannot be accurately interpreted without advice on the circumstances in which the records were created which is normally provided by archivists in the reading room at the British Library. Links to related material may also be provided by the curatorial staff in the British Library.

 

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.