The Value of Connection – By Mark Farmer

Here is a guest blog post by Mark Farmer (@Markus64), Web Redesign Manager at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The value of connection

It’s 2012 and recession is rearing its ugly head again.

Thought we were over that? Thought we had found the light at the end of the tunnel in 2010? Apparently not. It looks like we may be in for at least a slowdown, if not a downturn.

It’s downright discouraging. Depressing, even. Recession means a cut in many people’s discretionary spending, and museums are definitely in most people’s “discretionary” column. For too many folks, we’re far from essential, and too few of the general public understand or even believe in the value of what we do.

Is there a way to reduce that risk, to make museum-going more of a core part of people’s lifestyle, instead of a discretionary nicety to be indulged in if there’s enough cash lying around?

Luckily, there is. It’s through the power of connection.

There’s a reason why people will buy an Apple device even though it costs a few hundred dollars more than a competitor. There’s an explanation why folks will contribute to a soup kitchen even when they’re not sure of their own employment. There’s an underlying cause why folks support one sports team over another, even if both squads are surprisingly identical except for the colour of their jerseys.

The reason is connection.

Marketers might say the reason why Apple sells so many iPhones and other devices is because of brand. But “brand” is just another word for a connection with consumers. It’s the same underlying human emotion that makes people feel a connection with those less fortunate than themselves, and want to donate money to keep those people from going hungry. It’s the same connection that causes us to suspend our disbelief that there’s any substantial difference between one sports team vs. another, and then to root vociferously for the hometown squad.

There’s an emotional connection that underlies all those interactions. The good news is, anyone can create that connection. Even a museum.

We create that connection when we create a strong value proposition, or even when we simply appeal to people’s values or underlying emotions. As museums, we can tweak something deep inside people to make them identify with us or something we do, and there is a wealth of material in a museum with which to accomplish that.

For example, we educate people – we are the place where learning happens. As a society we’ve left the little red schoolhouse long behind, and facilities like museums are essential for teaching the next generation about our world, for understanding our place in that world and our relationship with it. We inspire wonder and make learning come alive.

Heady stuff! Sometimes we museum-types let our humility and the kind of skepticism bred in our academic circles curb the impulse to describe how important we are. Nonsense. Museums are nothing less than essential to society, no matter what state the economy is in. We (the few, the chosen) on the inside know it, but communicating that to others – creating that connection – is the challenge. Too often, we get caught up in a sense of our own importance, and end up focusing on that or assuming everyone else feels the same way about museums as we do. It’s critical to remember that even though what museums provide is an essential service, we do ourselves and our mission a colossal disservice when we assume the public understands and believes that as much as we do. Our job is to make people aware of the importance and value of what we do by creating connections with them.

We already possess the tools to do so. Social media is just one of them, but it is particularly well-suited to creating connection and community. In fact, it’s such a powerful tool for those purposes that it’s been used to rally revolutions in Tunisia, Iran and elsewhere. Institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum and Indianapolis Museum of Art, are leading the way in social media and showing other institutions how to leverage these media to reach out to their community and engage them.

Other tools include the in-gallery experience, interpreting and enhancing the way people experience the objects in our care, using a mix of new and old technology. The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum and the Balboa Park Online Collaborative use mobile technology in innovative new ways to enhance the experience of their museums and create impactful narratives to engage their audiences, and draw them further into a relationship with them.

There are no lack of tools and approaches to achieve connection, but they’re just means to an end. They don’t do anything in and of themselves. If we don’t harness them to a vision of the kind of relationship we want, they’ll disappoint us. That’s why it’s important to focus on the broad strokes of what we as museums do and what we can achieve. And what we can achieve is positively inspiring.

We feed the soul. In an age of Kardashians, Bachelorettes and Jersey Shore, we provide Kandinsky, Botticelli and Jasper Johns. We enlighten as we entertain.

We preserve the past for the future, giving ourselves the ability to look back at where we came from and who we were. We are the cultural memory for entire societies.

We help people make sense of their world, understand climate change and civil unrest, why one society falls while another rises, where the world is heading and what we can do to influence it. We give direction and essential information.

We entertain, inform, engage, illuminate and inspire. We create connections between people and their world through their connection with our institutions. That kind of connection is based on (and reinforces) the value of what we do in a way that no ad campaign or rousing speech ever could. Connection takes time and a lot of effort to build, but it’s the foundation upon which we build our public. Connection is precisely what is needed to build the kind of solid constituency that can help see an institution through an economic downturn and beyond.

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