Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Managing Multiple Museum Audiences

Originally posted in July 2014, the realities and challenges of managing multiple audience groups continues to be true and challenging.

Photo credit: Vergeront

An article in the July 2014 issue of Curator prompted my thinking about museums managing multiple audiences. Museums by their nature have multiple audiences that are designated in numerous ways: members and general visitors; locals and tourists; adults, young adults, families, and children; enthusiasts, culturals, learning families. 

In “A Place for Kids? The Public Image of Natural History Museums,” co-authors Hanne Strager and Jens Astrup report on a study to investigate the public image of natural history museums. Absent published quantitative surveys and studies, the study explores whether natural history museums are seen by the public as being primarily aimed at children and families with children. Given this question, it examines the implications for the role natural history museums might play in promoting science literacy. Conducted in Denmark, the study brings in relevant perspectives from natural history museums in the US and Europe.

While this study focuses on audience questions in natural history museums in particular, it exemplifies an important practice: investigating an unexamined audience assumption, in fact, one that operates across museum types. Based on my museum experience, perpetuating unexamined assumptions about audiences is not unusual. The authors, in fact, make such a point, “Most researchers simply observe the phenomena described above as a well known fact.” (p. 313). Often unwittingly, museums perpetuate unchecked assumptions about their audiences, sometimes embracing and acting on fuzzy or false beliefs about them. At some point, these assumptions collide: public perception of a museum shifts, audiences compete with each other, attendance drops, funding slips.   

The article surfaces some audience assumptions that can limit museums in advancing their missions and serving their audiences well. The following five axioms solidly ground museum thinking in their audiences. Some are more obvious than others, but all are interconnected and contribute to keeping a thoughtful eye on museum audiences.

-        Mission drives audience.

-        Audiences are plural.

-        Museums identify their audiences but their visitors choose them.

-        Different audience groups have different interests and expectations.

-        Meeting attendance goals is not the same as serving the audience well.

Mission drives audience. The mission as the source of a museum’s audience may be neither obvious nor logical. That’s not surprising given many mission statements that refer to a large, undifferentiated public or group such as, “people of all ages.” On the other hand, a focus on a museum’s audience does emerge when it considers its mission elements: what a museum does, how, and why. A museum can bring additional clarity to understanding its audiences when it asks, who does the community need us to serve in order for us to advance our mission? Without an understanding of its audience grounded in its mission, a museum may unwittingly aspire to be for everyone and venture onto the slippery slope of chasing the audience.

Audiences are plural. Talking and thinking about “the” audience or “our” audience implies that a museum’s audience is a single, undifferentiated group. This is a problematic approach to serving 50, 100, or 400 thousand visitors a year when they come as families, school groups, seniors, or adult enthusiasts; come on busy holidays or slow weekday mornings; visit a dozen times a year or once in a lifetime. A museum must serve multiple audience groups to deliver on its mission as well as to establish a broad enough base of support to its collection, experiences, staff, and facility. Of course which audience groups are served, which are larger than others, and how a museum serves them varies according to the museum, its mission, size, and community.

Museums identify their audiences, but their visitors choose them. The mission broadly frames who the museum’s audiences are so it can identify and learn about the groups it needs to serve well to deliver on that mission. Converting an audience group into a visitor, however, is quite a different matter and not always an easy one. Visitors don’t simply show up at a museum because they fit a museum’s audience profile, although it’s tempting to operate as if that were true. Why a museum attracts whom it does is a function of multiple factors. Research helps sort out how location, experience, relevance to everyday life, educational content, amenities, and local competition play out. Sometimes, however, a group, like young adults that a museum wants to attract just isn’t inclined to be attracted. A museum must decide how much it should stretch to engage a particular audience group and at what cost to other valued audience groups.

Different audience groups have different interests and expectations. While obvious, the implications of this can be tricky to manage. In whatever way a museum identifies its audience groups (learning families, culturals, young adults, millenials, enthusiasts), it does so around within-group commonalities that are salient to its mission and offerings. Various groups may not only have different but sometimes, competing interests and expectations. Sometimes the differences between groups and the expectations begin to drive other decisions. Internal mindsets can reinforce competition for experience or space; sacrifice appealing to one group over another; or perpetuate the idea that one group ruins the experience for others. If, however, audiences are grounded in the mission, then all audience groups are valued. The museum employs its expertise, creativity, audience research, and prototyping to expand engagement strategies capable of serving multiple audience groups–building on shared interests, encouraging collaboration, optimizing spaces and time of day.               

Meeting attendance goals is not the same as serving the audience wellA museum uses many measures to characterize its impact. Among audience-related measures, attendance is most common, characterizing a museum’s popularity and, to an extent, its access related to location and cost. Attendance is used so often we forget what it doesn’t convey. First, it doesn't reveal if these are the right people, the audience groups the museum must serve to advance its mission. Crowds of people coming through the doors is an accomplishment. When these crowds aren’t made up of priority groups or are served at at the expense of groups to whom the museum directs its mission, it is not a success. 

Finally, as important as reaching attendance goals for key audiences is, a museum must also serve its audience groups well. What this means is different for every museum, but it is necessarily a complex choreography across many time frames delivered by a many many people with great intentionality. It doesn't, and can't, happen without thoughtfully examining and updating assumptions and knowledge about the museum's multiple audience groups.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Customer, Learner, Citizen

Photo credit: Vergeront
Originally posted January 2011

Visitors, audiences, guests, customers, clients, patrons, users, the public. How do you or your museum refer to the people it serves and hopes to serve? 

Articles, blogs, conversations, and even mission statements suggest there is little agreement about this important term among museums. In fact, labels are often used interchangeably. This might imply that it doesn’t really matter what we call the adults and children who walk through the doors, enroll in classes, become members, shop at the store, explore exhibits, and visit our websites.

In fact, what we call our museum’s public beneficiaries really does influence how we think of them, plan for them, serve them and our communities, and even assess our impact. “Visitor” might have the lead as a standard term, but with major shortcomings. It is not only impersonal, but it also lumps together millions of people into one undifferentiated mass. It implies a temporary relationship with someone who will be leaving soon. Finally, it ignores the vast number of people who may not physically come to the museum but who have an interest in and a relationship with it. Teachers and school administrators, volunteers, partners, funders, business leaders, neighbors, and taxpayers are only some of the stakeholders who don’t fit the label "visitor."   

Visitor is not so much a wrong term; it is simply inadequate. The lively, exciting activity around audience conceptualizations seems to suggest this as well. (Falk, J. 2006;  Stylianou-Lambert, T. 2010. Pekarik and  Mogel. 2010.)

Somewhere between a one-size-fits-all category of visitor and a research-based audience segmentation is a view of museum visitors as:
  • Customers
  • Learners
  • Citizens
While very basic as a taxonomy, this nevertheless focuses on the person, engages with museum practices, and aligns with most museums’ broad strategic interests. It also accommodates the very real possibility that one person is likely to be a customer, a learner, or a citizen at various times during a museum visit depending on their interests, choices, and activities.

Considering the particular roles and associated interests of customers, learners, and citizens opens the possibility of relationships with them that are more personal than abstract and that may be on-going. It places people in the social context of museums. And it facilitates understanding, describing and assisting people in what they hope to accomplish by connecting with the museum.
  • Customers purchase memberships, attend events, shop in the store, and use websites. They are interested in friendly service, personal satisfaction, a good value, comfort, easy navigation, and a positive experience. 
  • Learners visiting exhibits, participating in a program, or upgrading skills expect rich accessible content, opportunities to apply existing skills and experiences, or appreciate art. They may want to learn together as a family or provide a learning experience for their children.
  • Inspired to serve their community, eager to expand or share skills, or acting on a long-standing interest, citizens may be volunteers, participants in research, advisors, advocates, or enthusiasts. They bring energy, expertise, and goodwill that help a museum strengthen its community connections.
Getting to know and plan for customers, learners, and citizens suggests new contexts and practices. We tend to construct a context that takes into account qualities we attribute to someone in a particular role. So distinguishing among roles is likely to sharpen awareness of expectations and associated contexts. Alternative assumptions, approaches, and practices may come into play along with new resources and studies.

  • Customers. Satisfying customers brings to mind ways to be helpful, the importance of taking the extra step, and the potential of an on-going relationship that serving visitors does not. Two decades ago museums experienced a surge of awareness around satisfying customers. Meeting or exceeding their expectations became a priority. Subsequently, customer service procedures were developed, staff training was implemented, and satisfaction levels are measured and tracked. Lobbies increasingly offer designated lines (i.e. member express), food and other amenities, and activities to engage children while parents purchase tickets. A reputation for exceptional customer service builds a valued brand and good will that benefits a museum for years.
  • Learners. Imagine the discussions, questions, and choices a team planning an exhibit for learners would have compared to the same team planning an exhibit for visitors. To plan for learners, a team might develop a definition of learning. It might identify attributes like curiosityrich experience bank, or creative, that learners bring to the objects, images, text, media, and activities a team will shape into an exhibition. The team could use generic learning outcomes or content-based frameworks to frame learning goals and evaluate the exhibit’s impact, just as it could design exhibits using research on the connection between family learning and exhibit characteristics. The more developed a view of the learner a museum has, the more fully it is able to deliver on a promise of learning value.
  • Citizens. Museums invest significant resources in developing partnerships, growing networks, recruiting volunteers, delivering programs in the community, and reaching new audiences. These are long-term efforts and a challenge to sustain. Engaging citizens in this work, however, can shift resources and results. Whether they are neighbors, hobbyists, volunteers, activists, artists, inventors, or scientists, citizens bring high levels of motivation and commitment. Moreover, their experiences, expertise, and perspectives are assets that help the museum serve its customers and learners more effectively, expand its cultural knowledge, research a pressing local issue, or bring a wider range of the community into the museum. While listening, nurturing relationships, and building trust take time, authentic citizen engagement goes directly to a museum’s aligning its interests and assets with its community’s priorities.
Everyday, museums open their doors, look sharp, eagerly await and welcome visitors. If, however, a museum were to focus on serving its customers, inspiring learners, and engaging citizens, it could accomplish this and more. A museum could also help itself become a recognized and valued asset in its community.
  • Falk, J. 2006. An identity-centered approach to understanding museum learning. Curator: The Museum Journal. 49/2: 151-164.
  • Pekarik, A.J. and B. Mogel. 2010. Ideas, objects, or people? A Smithsonian exhibition team views visitors anew. Curator: The Museum Journal 53/4: 465-483.
  • Stylianou-Lambert, T. 2010. Re-conceptualizing museum audiences: Power, activity, responsibility. Visitor Studies: 13(2): 131-144.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Beginning With Audience

There are many ways for a museum to view its audience—through the lenses of mission, marketing, and engagement to name three. From who must the museum serve to advance its mission, to who must a museum be prepared to serve, to making distinctions between serving audience groups fully and serving them well, audience is an area of enduring interest. The next five Museum Notes posts will look into some of these questions beginning with this post from September 2011.

Audience, an Area of Enduring Focus
Photo credit: Vergeront

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 for 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 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 for its visitors. 

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

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 underserved groups; families, school, and community groups; children and adults; and 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, produces new insights about what is attractive to them, and how the museum must change.

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 foundations. Continuous scanning of emerging community and audience trends, sharing and interpreting observations, and following the implications of new information sharpen perspectives and informs action.

Supporting Practices
An intense commitment to audience in a pocket of the museum is inadequate for serving audiences well and catalyzing the mission. A museum must operate with a willingness to welcome everyone, 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 and preparing staff for interaction; calibrating the variety of offerings and rate 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 matter; they 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?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Upcycling Museum Notes

Artwork: ChainLinks.1.Zigmund

Now, just about midway into my 9th blogging year, I am gearing up to recirculate a selection of my Museum Notes posts. Rather than repeating myself without realizing it, I plan to repeat myself on purpose. In writing Museum Notes over the years, I have been interested in stretching my thinking and being helpful to museums becoming better versions of themselves.

I hope to continue to do both by upcycling some Museum Notes posts.  

With the exception of a few two-part posts, the nearly 300 Museum Notes were written in no particular order. One week I might write a post to help me think through the challenges a client and other museums often face after opening a new building. Consolidating the Gains might be followed by a post on something that caught my fancy like Little Free Libraries or how hardware stores and museums are similar. A post like In Between Research, Theory and Practice, patiently waiting in the queue might finally get the thinking time it needed, or at least enough, for me to hit the “publish” button.

Now looking over the list of posts, some threads and clusters are apparent. There are sets of posts on strategic planning, stakeholders, Reggio-inspired pedagogy, play, materials, nice + necessary, place, and learning frameworks. Going forward I plan group and share posts in a series, selecting ones that are relevant today as they hopefully were when written. Snow Shoveling as Community Building might not make the list.

In writing each Museum Notes post I have pushed myself to find answers to, Why might this matter to what people working in museums and libraries, and to parents and educators? What difference will it make to someone leading organizational change, making a case for the museum’s impact to a funder, or wanting to experiment and bring in new possibilities? How can developing a learning framework be accessible to even small museums?  Can this link or reference be like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle someone has been looking for?

I continue to want to be helpful to museums so am keen to know if there are particular past posts or topics of high interest to you. Below are about 20 possible topics attached to about 4 - 10 posts. You may have other topics in mind that are of interest to you; see some other ways of slicing through topics; or have an idea of some less-than-obvious but useful combinations of topics. If you have time to scroll through past posts at www.museumnotes.blogspot.com please do. I hope you'll let me know what you would look forward to revisiting.   

• Organizational Change  • Strategic Planning  • Professional Practices  • Audience  • Stakeholders • Nice + Necessary  • Impact  • Children in Museums  • Children as Thinkers, Doers, and Knowers  • Children and Community • Parents and Caregivers  • Experience • Books and Literacy • Learning Frameworks  • Curiosity, Creativity  • Experience  • Play • The Play-Learning Connection  • Outdoor Play  • Environments  • Questions?
• Materials & Objects