Audience Engagement

I have not written a blog post for quite sometime.  I have reassessed my professional needs and took on new projects, including being a chair for the New England Museum Association’s (NEMA) Young and Emerging Professionals (YEPs) Professional Affinity Group (PAG).

This afternoon, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and Adam Rozan, Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum, hosted a Twitter discussion about audience engagement at AAM’s conference.  I jumped at the chance to participate in this conversation.

During research for my thesis, I developed a deeper appreciation for technology, museums, and audiences.  Previous to this, my museum career path was to be a collections manager.  More than a year later after finishing my thesis, I have turned my sights on audience engagement and interpretation initiatives.  Museums have the unique opportunity to work with collections that serve as touchstones for communities.

So how can museums engage their audiences?

  • As Kate Burgess-MacIntosh pointed out the “[fir]st step of audience engagement: know your audience, or audiences.” Understanding audiences will help museums develop stronger content.
  • Get staff on board with new technologies.  New technology can be expensive and difficult to learn for some people, but having staff support and participation can develop great content and communication.  I also highly recommend senior level staff members to participate on social media.
  • Transparency. Transparency is essential to break down barriers between the audience and museum staff.
  • Tap into the audience’s knowledge.  Audiences have their own experiences and knowledge that museums can harness.  By doing so, exhibitions and collections will transcend and take on a new and intimate meaning with the audience.

I know I’m missing a few ways, but hopefully you can fill in the blanks.  What are some other ways museums can increase audience engagement? Are there any successful or failed attempts of audience engagement?

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Arts Organizations and Their Community

The changing nature of communication in the world has impacted the way people speak to each other and search for information.  New technologies have made interacting easier and more immediate than ever before.  As social networking becomes a necessity for people to communicate effectively, arts organizations must utilize social media platforms to increase their accessibility.  New technologies and social media platforms can provide new ways to create participatory programming or projects.  Arts organizations can also crowdsource their audiences to engage them in an active role.  Museums have utilized crowdsourcing to harness the power of their audiences to gain information or to include the audience in the process of exhibitions.  For example, the Plains Art Museum’s exhibition You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection, reached out to their audience to curate objects for this exhibition.  This was a great way for the Plains Art Museum to encourage audience participation with their collection.  Other arts organizations can learn from crowdsourcing examples and encourage their community to be more participatory.

Another example of a unique participatory opportunity is the Uforge Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Uforge Gallery has monthly assignments inspiring artwork from artists.  Unlike most galleries, artwork submitted for each show is non-juried, regardless of experience, technique or material.   For the young and inexperienced artists, this is a wonderful opportunity to connect with an emerging arts culture and have feedback by experienced artists.  The Uforge Gallery has created a close-knit community of artists who welcomes everyone.

As resources diminish, arts organizations can identify as educational resources for their communities and visitors.  Teachers can bring their students to arts organizations to expose them to topics being learned in school.  Teachers can also reach out to these institutions to develop lesson plans leading up to a future visit.   Arts organizations can provide educational resources for adults by having lectures or presentations on their research or material.  For example, science museums host lectures and presentations on scientific discoveries and theories.  By bringing current news and information into the organization, there is a better chance of them staying current, relevant, and an integral part of the educational system.

To reach their community, arts organizations need to determine whom their audience is, how they want to reach their audience, and how to make their current programming participatory.  These are necessary parameters to grasp the scope of audience and community.  Arts organizations can study their audience demographics and survey them to see what type of art events they attend.  Some arts organizations have reached out to media consultants to help them cultivate new audiences and maintain current ones.

The arts are an essential part of the community’s identity.  They tell the community’s stories and bring new experiences to the community.  Oral history can be used by arts organizations to access previously unexplored stories in the community.  By developing these stories and integrating them in programming, the community can better relate to the arts organizations.  Not only do they provide a voice for their community, they also deal with global news, ideas, and issues in a creative way.  They are hubs for communities to learn and experience new ideas.

As arts organizations change how they interact and connect with their communities, they will be faced with several defining moments.  These moments will define what they become in the future and how they sustain their relationships with their communities.  Becoming a hub for educational resource and participatory programming will encourage community growth and sustainability.

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Smithsonian Magazine wrote a blog post questioning the sustainability of science museums.  The article identifies two concerns for science museums:

  1. Theory
  2. Funding

Funding is, was, and will be a problem for museums.  Crowdfunding is promising, but museums are seeing varied results.  The Hirschhorn Museum has had a weak response from their audience to fund Ai Weiwei’s exhibition.  On the other hand, there was a spirited campaign by the Oatmeal to build a Tesla Museum and over 1 million dollars were raised.  The campaign was successful because the Oatmeal’s creator, Matthew Inman, used his passion, talent, and time to build enthusiasm and to promote the Tesla Museum among his followers.  If you are familiar with his comics, you know how much he loved Tesla. Museums need to build enthusiasm for their campaigns and missions to gain the backing needed.

On to the next problem: theory.  Intangible theory is hard to display or even comprehend.  Scientific theory is riddled with complex terminology most would not be able to comprehend.  As someone who has studied quantum mechanics for a hobby, it is difficult.  Science museums are in the position of breaking down theories or bringing new developments and events to the public in a less complex way.  Instead of being impeded by traditional interpretation models, science museums have to find new ways to exhibit theories and discoveries invisible to the naked eye, and events and happenings that cannot be seen in person, such as the Higgs boson or space exploration.  I view scientific theory as a new opportunity for science museums to be on the cutting edge of innovative exhibition techniques and to incorporate new media.

What do you think? Are science museums in a better place to be innovative and interactive for audience members? I think this deserves some extensive research.

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Since this is my first blog post, I’m going to keep it short.  Yesterday, I attended NEMA’s workshop, Exhibits for Small and Medium Sized Museums and came away with a renewed enthusiasm, but hesitation.  Each presentation was well organized, thoughtful, and informative.  Historic New England’s Ken Turino and Joanne Flaherty presented the Life Cycle of an Exhibition, which broke down the process of developing an exhibition and emphasized key features of the process.  I bring them up specifically because they briefly discussed the limitations audience surveying.  Getting the audience and visitors to participate in surveys has been difficult for all museums.  How do we truly understand visitor response to our exhibitions or just our museums?  I will have more to say about this at a later date, but I haven’t finished John Falk’s book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience and it’s proving to be very informative.

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