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Understanding the essential role of progressive social engagement in successful audience development

By taking a stand when it comes to visitor engagement, cultural institutions can reach new levels of success

Like any organisation looking to grow, a museum is reliant on its customers for support. In order to go from strength to strength, this customer base must build both in terms of size and loyalty. That’s where audience development comes in.

Audience development is something that all museums must address if they wish to have success. After all, growing audiences and nurturing advocacy is the key to having a long-term cultural impact. Effective audience development looks different for every organisation, as different customer bases prefer to engage with their favourite cultural institution in different ways. However, there are certain requirements that are almost always present in a solid audience development strategy.

These include building relationships, offering direct communications, gaining more customers through marketing efforts, increasing customer loyalty and retaining the core customers you already have. Tailoring these tasks to the expectations of your visitors is essential, as the majority of consumers (63%) expect personalisation to be a standard of service, according to Red Point Global.

Yet there are other elements involved in audience development, some less expected than others. Tackling real-world issues in real-time can give museums the spark of interest they need from their audiences.

Audience development means tackling the topics visitors care about

In order for audiences to care about museums, museums need to tackle topics that people care about. Privilege, progress and protest have all made headlines in recent years in the wake of mass change and movement like Brexit, Trump, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 and more. As such, museums have found themselves in the strange position of being scrutinised through a new lens. In addition, museums have been expected to step away from neutrality and instead take a stance against failures of the past.

In the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Museum Educator Danielle Dart tweeted a scathing analysis of the museum structure, saying: “Museums are broken. They are defunding public-facing work while maintaining bureaucratic structures like HR, Finance and Leadership. If museums continue to exist this way, a true community-led, inclusive, anti-racist future is impossible.”

The expectation that museums will take a stand against injustice, and use their platform to raise awareness, still exists, and if anything has only grown more prevalent since the pandemic. Not only is social engagement expected of today’s museums, but it’s also an effective way to gather interest, create conversation and grow audiences behind a collective cause.

Of course, the challenge of taking a stance and entering into conversations of this nature can create controversy and debate. However, as many leading museum professionals have stated in recent times, the fostering of conversation and the encouragement of discussion is something that should be embraced rather than avoided.

Museums are using their platform to spark conversation

In recent years, many museums have used their platform to address social concerns at the height of public consciousness. One such example comes from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. One of their latest exhibitions, Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics, was compiled during the COVID-19 pandemic, and features the work of individuals and communities who came together to help one another and push for change.

Image: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum,

From PPE designs to hospital equipment, the exhibition aims to show the profound impact pandemics have on human behaviour, both in terms of the increased stress levels, and in terms of the kindness, help and support we offer each other. The exhibition successfully provides both perspective and closure for visitors, while also raising several key talking points about the response by individuals and governments in the face of the virus.

But while COVID-19 has been at the forefront of society for two years now, it is not the only issue dominating modern times. Many museums are using their platform to tackle sustainability, and gain interest by starting essential conversations.

This has been done both through exhibitions, and through practical means. Last year, during COP26, the Natural History Museum worked with the New York Times Climate Hub. This involved running a nine-day event space within the Hub where guests could connect and discuss the museum’s proposed solutions to aid the climate crisis. The project was hosted virtually as well as in-person, in order to allow as many people as possible to attend and take part. This reflects what the museum’s director, Doug Gurr, calls the institution’s wider mission to create advocates for the planet.

The Plastic Museum in Indonesia is made up of 10,000 discarded plastic pieces. Photograph courtesy of founder and environmentalist Prigi Arisandi. Instagram @prigi.arisandi

Similarly, the Plastic Museum in Indonesia makes it its mission to tackle the devastating impact of plastic waste on the planet. The museum was created in Gresik, East java, by local environmentalists using 10,000 plastic waste items to warn of the damage caused by single-use plastic.

Using discarded bottles, bags, sachets and straws – all collected from nearby beaches and rivers – the museum looks specifically at the impact of marine plastic pollution, which the UN calls “a slow-motion catastrophe.”

The museum is particularly relevant as Indonesia is the second largest contributor to marine plastic pollution, after China. The museum gained a huge amount of traction both locally and online, sparking conversations around the world about the worsening ocean plastics crisis.

Conclusion: museums have the power to get people talking . . . and get them listening

Audience development is a long-term process, and one that requires constant revision, rethinking and re-evaluation. But social engagement can be the necessary jumpstart that sets the process off on the right foot and helps an institution hit the ground running – nurturing engagement and conversation.

However, it cannot be used simply as a tool to get visitors talking about a museum. There needs to be a genuine drive to get people connecting with the issue at hand, too. When there is genuine care and passion behind the drive to shine a light on social issues, it can bring about change. It can get people talking, which also gets them listening.

With all of these pieces in place, genuine social engagement can be a key component in successful audience engagement that benefits everyone – the museum, its visitors, and the wider community.


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