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How can museums develop a deeper connection with their visitors?

Image Credit: Alamy

The value of “connectivity” has come into sharp focus in recent times. As we’ve become more dependent on digital technologies for both work and play, maintaining lines of online communication have proven to be extraordinarily important. And while much of the emphasis is often placed on internet connections, software integrations, relationship management platforms, ticketing funnels and the like, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that connectivity is also about togetherness and human interaction. The technology is often there merely to facilitate those engagements more efficiently – both with colleagues and with customers.

We need only look at how many museums and galleries effectively pivoted to digital in order to appreciate that digital connectivity served to maintain and enhance engagement over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the short term goal of many institutions was simply to remain front of mind with their visitors, many have found that the successes of 2020 and 2021 have paved the way for audience growth and development into the future.

While approaches to audience development can vary, the goal is always the same: to nurture brand loyalty and advocacy for the long term. It’s about enticing visitors through a museum’s doors, onto their digital platforms or out to their exhibitions – all with the aim of delivering enriching experiences.

Audience development requires internal connectivity between teams, too. As stated by Arts Council England:

“Audience development describes activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of potential audiences . . . It can include aspects of marketing, commissioning, programming, education customer care and distribution.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the recent examples of how museums and galleries are building stronger relationships with their audiences in practice.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

For some museums, the simplest measures can be the most effective when it comes to ensuring that visitors are having a positive experience. This is the case for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which makes face-to-face contact with each museum visitor a priority.

Greeters have been installed throughout the museum’s lobbies and galleries to meet visitors at the door. These volunteers allow visitors to put a face to the name of the museum, while also pointing them to the administration desk, handing them a gallery guide and informing them of any special shows, exhibitions and audio tours that are available.

Not only does this provide visitors with an immediate welcome to the space, but it also takes the pressure off the administration desk to provide all the necessary information at once. This creates a greater opportunity for conversation and personalised service.

Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

For other museums, audience development has been devised and measured through participation, providing visitors with the opportunity to have a direct role in the museum’s structure and services. At the Worcester Art Museum, visitors are frequently encouraged to take an active role in certain events and exhibitions.

Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, The Cat in Winter (1909). Photo: Courtesy Worcester Art Museum.

An example of this can be seen in the museum’s Captivating Cat exhibition which, although a traditional visual exhibition in essence, also included a Community Cat Show. This latter aspect of the exhibition extended the invitation to art of all kinds from people across the region.

Similarly, the museum’s regular life drawing classes invite people from the community to not only partake in the drawing, but to also sign up to model for the classes if they so wish.

The Brooklyn Museum, New York

One lesson that many museums learn is that there is no single blueprint for audience development, and that one museum’s methods and scope for outreach may not be successful for another. This was exemplified by the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

A 2017 issue of The Museum Scholar describes the museum’s efforts to expand their reach globally by casting a wide social media net. When this didn’t meet the expectations they wanted, the museum re-evaluated their strategy and began to focus their efforts on local outreach. As such, the museum now uses social media to highlight local Brooklyn artists, taking visitors on a virtual tour through artist studios. This has proven to be hugely popular both in terms of visitor attendance and customer satisfaction and is a good way to grow an institution’s status within the local community.

V&A, London

Among the most successful exhibitions at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in recent memory was the hugely popular Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition.

The exhibition proved to be such a blockbuster that there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to cater to all the would-be visitors who had purchased tickets. After closing the exhibition there was still a huge waiting list, and tickets were being snapped up as soon as they were released.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

The V&A had no option but to extend the exhibition, but they also went one step further. In order to improve the guest experience, attract new visitors and accommodate loyal fans, they chose to open their doors throughout the night for their final two weekends. This show of ingenuity, commitment and empathy created a unique experience which became a sought-after talking point, making the exhibition the most successful the V&A has ever seen.

Ara Pacis Museum, Rome

Taking advantage of the latest technology can also help museums meet the needs of their audience – as was the case for the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome. The museum itself is built around the ancient monument of the Ara Pacis Augustine – an altar to the Roman Goddess of Peace. Since 2016, the museum has utilised both AR and VR to provide an ‘Ara as it was’ tour that virtually restores the monument to its former glory. This has proven extremely popular with new and old visitors alike.

Audience development is an ongoing process which must be thought of as organisation-wide and long-term. It can be regularly reviewed to ensure that actions are in-line with audience goals and reflect the values of an institution. The best audience development plans are SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timelined.

The MuseumNext Growing Audiences Summit will be held from 9th – 11th May, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing audience development in museums and galleries. Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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