Points of Connection: Visitor-centric Organisations

In preparing to visit the five organisations in my project, I’ve been nosing around their websites, reading their blogs and reports, and watching their videos. Over time, I’ve noticed some interesting similarities and shared characteristics. I think this says something about how these places understand and value learning at an organisational level, and thought it would be worth summarising my observations here.

Looking at the four headings listed below, you would expect, or at least hope, that all visitor-centric organisations worth their salt would champion these ways of working. I have yet to meet a strategic plan or annual report that doesn’t sing the praises of audience engagement or claim that learning is ‘at the heart of our museum’ – the organisations that I’ll be visiting really demonstrate this commitment beyond the page.

I will give a few brief examples to illustrate each of the following headings:

  • Research and audience development inform programming
  • Clear ethos, shared with audiences
  • Key turning points
  • Organisation-wide commitment to learning

Old Leather 3 shelves LLR

Research and audience development inform programming

How often do evaluation reports become expensive dust-collecting devices, sitting undisturbed on office shelves? How often does the initial appetite for change and experimentation fade when deadlines are fast approaching and we rely on our own prior experience instead of systematically building audience research into our planning? I’ve been guilty of both these things despite good intentions to the contrary. It’s basic good practice, yet to do it properly can end up somewhere near the end of a ‘to do’ list instead of forming the bedrock of all programming.

Not so at Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). I’ve written previously about their seven-year research project into audience engagement and the resulting ‘Framework for Engaging with Art’. Similarly, Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has a team devoted to audience research; their work spans summative evaluation of programmes to in-depth studies of perception and observation using eye-tracking technology. Both DMA and IMA are open with this research and share findings on their respective websites; an immediate way of inviting audiences into the conversations, debates and thinking that usually occur behind closed doors.

Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) has monthly Making Use of Documentation sessions (or MUD, which wins my Acronym of the Week award). Documentation in many forms is collected and tabled, and the team reflects on lessons to be learned. I love how achievable this is – as a shared group experience the team can push each other’s thinking, and with a regular structure it becomes a way of thinking that’s integrated into daily working life and museum culture.


Clear ethos, shared with audiences

The phrase USP, or Unique Selling Point, was introduced to me by a marketing colleague years ago – What separates us from the others and makes us immediately identifiable? What’s our Amy Winehouse beehive? Our Elvis curled lip and quiff? It now seems to be a commonplace consideration when we think about our museums and how we position ourselves in a crowded marketplace. Not surprisingly, audiences are vital to this process of self-definition – no audiences, no museum. The five organisations in my project have clear, consistent identities. The carefully chosen use of language on their websites communicates their organisational ethos and signals a strong understanding of their audiences. These organisations know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and who they’re doing it for/with.

For example….

Museum Hack offers ‘subversive non-traditional tours for millennials’ and the style is immediate and energizing: Badass Bitches of the Met… A total celebration of feminism (without man hating), you’ll fall in love, dismantle the patriarchy, and get inspired to change the world, dudes and non-gender specified humans are welcome and encouraged!”

CMA is committed to creativity and has an open, inclusive attitude, reflected in its mission: There’s a willingness at CMA to try new things... A community hub where ideas can be exchanged and different voices heard, the Museum nurtures creativity through building relationships with diverse partners and designing engaging experiences.”

MCA Denver is where the cool kids go. It also warms up contemporary art for young people and families with a programme that feels approachable and unintimidating, such as the Failure Fair: “MCA Denver recognizes that artists put forth something new in the world without knowing if what they create will be embraced or ridiculed; in short, risking failure. MCA Denver created the Failure Fair to encourage this artistic spirit among young people. We encourage submissions of projects that demonstrate the courage to go against the grain of the everyday – to risk being ridiculous, impossible, fantastical, or merely impractical.”

IMA and DMA, both substantially larger organisations than the others, promote breadth of available experiences and an open welcome to everyone. On the IMA schools’ webpage, the invitation extends to family life: “Whether you want to bring your students or family to the IMA in person, or you’re looking for opportunities to interact with our collection through digital resources, let us support your learning experiences and make the art world a stronger, more relevant part of your world.”

DMA’s Meaningful Moments programme is described in a way that promotes both the social and creative benefits: “Designed specifically for individuals with early-stage dementia and their family members or caregivers, Meaningful Moments is a monthly program that includes a gallery discussion, an interactive component, and an art-making activity in the Art Studio. Participants will have the chance to relax and connect with art in the galleries, share stories, and gain inspiration.”

chameleon www.ox.ac.uk

Key turning points

Change – that old chestnut. It can be a destabilising and derailing experience for an organisation when managed badly. Not all change is good. Fortunately, turmoil can also create opportunities to cast off out-dated approaches and breathe new life into a place. It can be uncomfortable, awkward and difficult, but the conversations that surface by having to find new ways of working can push us forward and ultimately improve practice. Change is definitely a recurring theme in the places I’ll be visiting.

DMA’s centenary in 2003 was the catalyst for huge changes at the museum, sparking their extensive audience research and quest to reconnect with local communities. Both the then Director, John R Lane, and Deputy Director, Bonnie Pitman, played crucial roles in driving this change and the museum went from 337,000 visitors a year in the early 2000s to over a million in 2010.

A change of director often leads to a change in direction. Charles Venable became Director and CEO of IMA in 2012. Under his leadership to date, endowment spending has been reduced, membership has trebled, innovative programming has been championed and a new 10-year strategic plan has been developed. It hasn’t been entirely without controversy however, as restructuring reduced staff size and admission fees have been introduced.

Adam Lerner became Director and Chief Animator of MCA Denver in 2009 and has been the subject of glowing articles in The New York Times and The Denver Post, where his new approach is lauded. For example, “Adam is reshaping what has become a stale model for a contemporary art museum,” said Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. “That’s part of the reason I follow what he does.”

Recent site-development projects are common across all four museums in my project:

I am currently two years into a three-year site development project at the V&A, which has required temporarily re-locating the learning centre to the far side of the building. I can vouch first-hand for the disruptive nature of site-development projects, as well as their ability to provoke change as we’ve adapted to our circumstances and prepare for our improved welcome.


Organisation-wide commitment to learning

Having friends in high places is a useful way to get stuff done. In museums, having senior management and trustees championing experimental approaches to learning and visitor engagement can dramatically reposition a museum within its community (see DMA and MCA Denver examples above). An organisation’s commitment can be demonstrated in many tangible ways – in floor space, in allocation of funding, and in flexibility within and across teams to name just a few. It’s more than just lip-service when the entire floor of a museum is devoted to active engagement, as is the case at CMA. Liberated from the push-pull arguments that can bog down museums (objects first! people first!), Museum Hack is free to focus on audiences and the deeply human urge to tell stories.

Although Minneapolis Institute of Arts is outside my project, I can’t resist adding the example of Kaywin Feldman’s leadership; at a Museum Ideas conference in London last October, she shared some of the strategies for change at MIA, including having it written into everyone’s job description that the visitor is at the centre of all that they do.

I appreciate that no organisation can ever have 100% of its staff in agreement and all working towards the same goal 100% of the time – but the extent of the commitment to learning and visitor engagement in these examples is striking.


If I had to boil it down, I think all of the above can be summarised in two statements:

  1. Know thy audience; and
  2. Be a learning organisation

Learning staff are essential for their skill set, but that doesn’t let everyone else off the hook – efforts to engage with local communities and audiences of all ages must be intrinsic to all aspects of an organisation’s work to achieve genuine and consistent engagement. Dr Bernadette Lynch’s report for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Who’s Cake Is It Anyway? argues this case very powerfully.


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