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The audience is central to much of what a museum does, and visitor surveys and audience segmentation have over the past decade improved our understanding of the people who walk through our doors.
In terms of the audience being the receivers of a performance or service, ‘audience’ does not seem like the best way for us to describe the modern museum consumer. These are people who live increasingly digital lives, where they are not spectators, but active participants, positively engaged through outreach programmes and projects.
While it is unlikely that the use of the word ‘audiences’ will change, I think it is useful for us to think of the people who choose to interact with museums either digitally or by making a visit as ‘participants’.
Whether you are planning a new exhibition, website or marketing plan, thinking about how you can engage with your museum’s ‘participants’ rather than ‘audiences’ will give you a different mindset.
In February 2011, a group of museums and galleries in Yorkshire, England launched a marketing campaign to promote art collections on display in thirty-five venues across their county.
The campaign chose not to shout about how great the art in these museums and galleries was, but instead asked the pubic to participate in the campaign by sharing stories about their favourite painting.
The campaign Yorkshire’s Favourite Painting offered a unique prize, the opportunity to win a replica of a painting that you love, and in six weeks, over 400 people took the opportunity to enter the competition.
The stories about why people loved these paintings were diverse, from a moving account of a mother who had lost her son in the conflict in Afghanistan and was reminded of him by a Lowry painting, to a six year old boy who ‘liked the lovely ladies’ in a painting of mermaids and a lady who wanted to win a replica of an artwork by her famous artist father.
While 400 people wrote stories, many more participated in other ways, sharing stories through social media, leaving comments and voting for stories.
The website attracted tens of thousands of hits, but the campaign resonated further, with online participants becoming real world visitors.
While museums are creating opportunities for the public to participate online though their use of Facebook and Twitter, most museum websites haven’t incorporated this kind of interaction into their own websites.
Teylers Museum, the Netherlands’ first and oldest museum is one such museum. Their website offers the public all the pre-visit information they might need, but doesn’t seem to give the public the chance to participate in any meaningful way.
However, the Teylers Museum has another website, built using the social networking tool NING which breaks down the boundaries and brings the museum to life in a way their main website doesn’t.
The website invites anyone to participate by joining this mini social network of curators, associates and friends of the museum.
Herman Voogd of the Teylers Museum explains ‘We started to use NING to give all Teylerfans and our staff the opportunity to leave pictures and messages about the museum.
‘We like the idea of having both a traditional museum website and something which is more open. A blog, a photo-album where every member of staff has more freedom. On our NING website it doesn’t matter that the picture is not crystal clear or that the movie is amateurish.
‘The rule is to not spend a lot of time but share a lot of knowledge about the museum or the collections’.
Using NING as a platform gives the public the opportunity to participate not only by commenting on content added to the website by the museum, but also by starting their own conversations and sharing their own perspective on the museum.
Ultimately, I see all museum websites giving audiences the chance to participate in this way. This approach takes more time and effort than a traditional website, and many may worry about the resources that such an online community would require. But if a museum does not have time to participate in conversations with its audiences (even online) then I think it needs to reassess its priorities.
Another way to involve our audiences as participants is through co-creating exhibitions. I think this is an exciting opportunity which we are only just starting to see museums explore.
This kind of co-creation can take many forms; it could be a history exhibition shaped by the contributions from people who lived through the event, a crowdsourced art exhibition created with the public or asking visitors to write new labels for paintings.
One recent example comes from CCCB in Barcelona, where an exhibition of photography by 20th century Spanish photographer Josep Brangulí is being partnered by a very 21st century project.
Contemporary photographers were asked to respond to the themes of the exhibition (and Josep Brangulí’s work) through an open call which tapped in to Barcelona’s thriving Flickr community to attract over 2,000 submissions in a month.
One picture reflecting each of the exhibitions themes will be displayed alongside the work of Josep Brangulí, while all submissions will be shown in a projection.
This isn’t social media for the sake of a trend, but using technology to make an exhibition better through public participation, and in doing so, CCCB are also making the individuals who are taking the time to get involved think deeper about the themes of the exhibition and the changing world captured in both the Brangulí and the contemporary images.
This kind of participation acknowledges that the public has a valid voice within the museum, and that these individuals have something to contribute.
What these forms of participation have in common is that they acknowledge that the public has a valid voice within the museum, and that these individuals have something to contribute, often making the exhibition better than it could be without the public’s participation.
It is perhaps naïve to think that the best expertise always exists within a museum.
Our audiences are not passive spectators. They increasingly expect museums to offer them participatory experiences and that should be reflected by the way in which the modern museum approaches them.
Don’t think of the people who walk through your doors or interact with you online as audiences, think about what you can do for your participants.
Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with museums for more than 20 years and now splits his time between tech and innovation consulting for museums and running MuseumNext.
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