Museum Engagement – By Maya Hirschman

Here is a guest blog post by Maya Hirschman (@Mambolica), Curator of Regional History at Museum London.

Museum Engagement

Think of this blog post as a crash course in museum engagement.  I write it in the hope that you’ll come away understanding a little better how a museum can engage its audience and how a community can engage its museum.

Museums are more than just places to keep stuff, they’re meeting places, attractions,  entertainment, education and most of all, they’re diverse and relevant.  They’re the places where relationships are built between museums, collections and communities.  At least, that’s what we museum professionals hope.

Museums have always been about learning and teaching and leaving impressions on people.  They are the offspring of Enlightenment thinking and Victorian sensibility.

It used to be so easy: public art galleries saw their primary roles as the collection, preservation and display of artworks and the public appreciation of these works.  Public museums of archaeology, history and science saw their sites as educational institutions with a responsibility to disseminate that knowledge through the provision of formal scholarly displays.  Both galleries and museums believed they held their collections in trust for future generations – presumably because the public couldn’t be trusted to do so themselves – for the betterment and enlightenment of all people.  And the people should be grateful,

It’s a well-intentioned but patronising attitude that continues to cling to an older generation of museum professionals, and to museums in general, like cobwebs in the corners of a seldom entered storage vault.  But nothing is static and times change.  Slavery was abolished, women got the vote, wars ravaged the world, borders fell and new countries were formed in the wreckage.  Immigration built cities and waves of migration moved humanity across an increasingly small planet.

Some time in the middle of the 20th century, people started to think that maybe those temple-like shrines to enlightenment and education were getting a bit stale.

Over the last four or five decades, by and for this evolving and increasingly complex public, there has been increasing pressure for change in the way museums relate.  This pressure comes from above, below and within the profession itself.

Museum direction has historically come mainly from above; government, boards and funding bodies, for example.  They have been most interested in developing museum roles through supporting structured curriculum-based education, diversifying their audience, meeting the needs of their communities and their stake-holders, generating income and pushing toward better value for money.

From below, are the demands of the audiences, not just the “traditional” white, professional middle-class audience, but the growing voice of those who have previously felt excluded from or objectified by what museums have to offer.  They look for increasingly high quality, better value for money in the face of other competition for their leisure time, opportunities to participate, and the right to self representation.

This is a lot riding on the people who bring museums to life, especially under increasing fiscal pressure.  For the most part, museum professionals understand that their audience is not one, but many, and that there is a more pressing need to win the hearts and minds of those elusive non-traditional audiences.  There is recognition that being adequate isn’t good enough anymore and the new visions require partnerships and relationships within the communities they serve.  And they recognise that if something isn’t enjoyable or fun, people just aren’t going to do it.

So how do you get from stodgy to fun without being seen as dumbing down – an expression that has been known to cause aneurisms in some education-minded museum pros.

Central to the developing roles of museums in their communities is one key element: museums responding to their audiences as partners in a joint enterprise.

That sounds big, doesn’t it?

And it is, because it requires a lot of museums to completely re-examine and reorient their direction and product.

To be audience-centred means taking into account the personal context of the visitor and the holistic nature of the museum visit.  Museums need to think of their role in motivating and supporting visitors at three interlinked levels:

  1. Provide the motivation to visit in the first place.  This includes everything from the site image and quality of its marketing, to word-of-mouth recommendations and being reflective of trends in leisure.
  2. Place visitors in the ‘right frame of mind’ when they’re visiting so that they’re more inclined to view exhibitions positively.
  3. Provide the stimuli and support to engage the public directly with the site and collection – including display design, quality of interpretation and content.

Now, my work as a museum curator really only applies to that last one because my role is directly associated with the writing and planning of the history exhibitions.  If you want to know about the other stuff, there are some great books out there.  (Many of which I am plagiarising for the purposes of this blog entry.)

When most people think of museums, the first thing that comes to mind is its exhibits.  For a lot of people, that’s where it stops.  Some also think of the public programs it offers.  Those programs might be school tours, adult art classes, film series or whatever.  Exhibits and programs are basically the public face of the museum and that by which a museum builds its public reputation.  Ultimately, if a museum’s exhibits and/or programs are weak, so is its reputation.

So how do we make museums fun and engaging?  The answer, in my opinion, is obvious.  Not simple, but obvious.

Too many museum presentations are information-led when they really ought to be audience-focused.

Visitors and curators alike are aware that you can get the same information as is found in museum exhibits, and often much more, from books, films, media, the Internet.  Visitors come to museums for the experiences that only such sites can provide.

The key, then, is to create presentations that absorb, challenge, or appeal to visitors.

The challenge is to arouse the visitors’ curiosity, to involve them directly with the site and collections.  A smart museum wants to encourage its visitors to think for themselves, to want to participate and, in a perfect world, to seek to discover more.

The tools a museum uses to do this is collectively called “interpretation”.

In 1957, Freeman Tilden published his book Interpreting our Heritage, which remains a defining text to this day.  He set out six principles of interpretation:

  1. We have to be able to relate to it.  Any interpretation that doesn’t somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
  2. Information is not interpretation.  Interpretation is revelation based upon information.
  3. Teachability.  Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historic or architectural.  Any art is some degree teachable.
  4. The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
  5. It must give an overview that can be grasped by many ages.  Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
  6. Interpretation addressed to children should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach, or at best, a separate program.

That’s pretty heavy stuff.  I prefer to distill Tilden down even further:

Interpretation is, at its root, giving people of all ages the tools to learn about a subject from their place in, or their understanding of, the world in as manageable an amount and as in as satisfying a way as they are willing to accept at that moment.  It is about acceptance.  We may want people to take in everything, but in reality, maybe we should be happy that visitors take in something.

I personally like food metaphors.

It’s like eating an unfamiliar cuisine at a restaurant.  A diner may not enjoy the whole meal, but  perhaps there’s a dish they enjoy – maybe not the curry, but the coconut shrimp was nice – and the experience of the restaurant itself – how the food was presented, the service, the ambiance – will hopefully leave them pleased with the experience.

There is always the risk that if the museum takes a leap that it might stumble.  But stumbling isn’t the same as failing.  When a museum strives for inclusivity, which is at the heart of the audience-focused approach, even if it doesn’t always achieve it, the museum will already be that much closer to the goal of engagement.  Since the majority of us museum professionals can’t force a museum to change, we must, to paraphrase a famous quote, “be the change we wish to see.”  The museum that doesn’t even attempt to adapt for fear of stumbling has already failed.

It takes a lot of effort to turn a ship around.  Museums are the ships, plowing through sometimes rough waters.  It takes planning, teamwork, input and effort.  The crew is made up of both museum professionals and members of the public and only by working together can both learn to accept and trust each other and get the ship – the museum – on a new course.

Maya Hirschman, MA., is the Curator of Regional History at Museum London, in London, Ontario.  She is a passionate social historian, museum advocate, lover of all that makes people interesting, game-playing geek, and baseball fan.