Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus

Several years ago on a strategic planning project, my planning partner Andrea Fox Jensen referred to a museum’s audience as an area enduring focus. Someone on the strategic planning team had commented that the museum had already been through discussions about their audience and what it should be.

The group seemed reassured by Andrea’s characterizing audience in this way: important, in fact so important, consideration of it is never complete. In any case, they engaged wholeheartedly in lively and productive discussions about age ranges, audience groups, and geographic radius. Later when the planning team brought the board into the discussion, members conveyed the value of revisiting this important question without a “been there, done that” subtext.

Andrea’s observation was so smart and helpful. Every project I work on–a strategic plan, learning framework, exhibit master plan, or something in between–involves a key discussion about audience. I don’t mean a back-up-and-start-from-scratch audience conversation. Typically these are fruitful discussions that review, check, or affirm the current audience. They relate the audience to the current project and get everyone on the same page. Sometimes they help bring new staff or board members along. These discussions are also opportunities to share new information or a chance insight about the audience like the arrival of universal pre-kindergarten in a community, declining school group visits, or an increase in moms’ groups.

These and countless other discussions about audiences, museums, and public value have surfaced features that distinguish audience and other possible areas of enduring focus. Moreover, they have underscored the critical role of audience in a museum acting deliberately on its aspirations.

Of Persistent Interest
Enduring assumes a long-term, continuing interest. Nothing could be more central to a museum’s aspirations and reason for being than its audience. Who a museum intends to serve is as fundamental at start-up as it is during periods of growth and change, as it is at each step of fulfilling a promise to the community.

A sound and shared understanding of a museum’s audience is essential. Museums go about this in many ways and on an on-going basis: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; and sometimes conducting audience research. Museums then apply an understanding of the audience to shaping and presenting collections, engaging experiences, and educational services in order to open up possibilities of learning to its visitors. 

Sometimes, however, it seems that the persistent focus of audience switches to attendance as Paul Orselli explored recently in ExhibiTricks. A focus on attendance can, in fact, distract from the centrality of audience to a museum’s value. If, for instance, the challenge of audience was simply about more visitors, a museum could just send out a bus, pick up visitors, and hand out free passes.

A Significant Difference
An area of enduring focus must be capable of making a major contribution to a museum’s public service. Audience is pivotal, from community-wide awareness of a museum to making a difference in the learning lives of children, building social cohesion across neighborhoods, or increasing science literacy among citizens.

In this respect, the challenge is less about bringing more visitors to the museum than about bringing the right visitors to the museum. To be certain it serves all parts of its audience well and serves priority audience groups fully, a museum must be knowledgeable about, alert to, proactive, and respectful towards its audience. Stories spread about museums discovering there are consequences to being vague about or indifferent to their audience.

Using a current and well-informed understanding of its audience, a museum needs to effectively reach and actively engage families, school, and community groups, children and adults, both current and potential visitors. The informal learning experiences it offers must address age-related development; be relevant to visitor interests, expectations and everyday lives; and align with its own aspirations.   

A Sharpening Perspective
Perspectives on critical, complex, and constant areas are never static. They evolve, advance, and become nuanced. Museums as well as their audiences exist in dynamic external contexts. Successes and failures produce new insights that affect understanding and reaching audiences; new practices help refine and advance audience knowledge.

In only a few decades, museums have shifted from being about something, to being for the general public, to serving specific audience segments, to being concerned with who is not coming to the museum. Learning from and about actual and intended visitors shifts perspectives, reveals interests and expectations of visitors, and produces new insights about what is attractive to them.

A body of audience knowledge builds from multiple sources: surveys, focus groups, and visitor panels, census data, and information generated by other groups. New practices and insights come from the work of other museums, from research conducted in the field on behalf of museums, and from audience development work supported by, for instance, the Wallace Foundation. Continuous scanning of emerging community and audience trends, sharing and interpreting observations, and following the implications of new information sharpen perspectives.

Supporting Practices
An intense commitment to audience in a pocket of the museum is inadequate in serving audiences well and catalyzing the mission. A museum must operate with a shared understanding of priority audiences, an organization-wide value on relationships that serve the audience well, and a strong belief that improving service to the audience will make a difference.

Robust audience-centered systems and procedures, integrated with practices, supported by resources, and reaching across the organization are necessary to grow audience knowledge, facilitate its transfer, and apply it effectively to experiences. Supportive practices must permeate developing and designing exhibitions; involving audience groups in planning programs and exhibitions; training staff for interaction; calibrating the variety of offerings and pace of change; and evaluating programs and exhibitions and their impact on the audience.

This is a museum’s everyday version of enduring focus. It circulates and re-circulates, interprets and re-interprets audience information and visitor studies. Staff look for evidence for-and-against goals and hunches. Teams address audience interests and engagement strategies at the forefront of every project and initiative. They prototype and revise experience goals, activities, messages, and designs. They evaluate the impact of experiences on the audience. And they begin again, playing it forward.

Intensifying Attention to Audience
In my work, I have found that identifying audience as an area of enduring focus is useful in intensifying attention on this critical piece of a museum’s potential to make a difference. It effectively signals to staff and board that the people and communities they hope to serve are the highest priority, at the center, and at every step.

What are your thoughts?
  • In what way does identifying audience as an area of enduring focus help your thinking and work?
  • Would you suggest other areas of enduring focus? What about:
    • Product, or a museum’s exhibitions, programs, learning experiences and environments, through which it serves and engages its audiences and accomplishes its purpose?
    • Resources, financial, human, intellectual, and real property, that are the necessary means to make this possible?
    • Impact, or areas of significant change in the public service a museum provides that are congruent with its purpose and to which it will be held accountable?

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