Museums, stop buying stuff

Invest in your visitors instead

There are numerous reasons why museums keep expanding their collections. But the question is: what can a new object add to the museum visitor experience?

Photo by Bara Cross

Museums have an important task: they protect and cherish our heritage. Not just for our generation, but for many generations to come. It’s only natural therefore that museums add valuable objects to their collections to safeguard them. But something has changed recently. Museums are eagerly collecting new objects hoping to attract a different crowd. This article will offer some advice on collecting for people that don’t visit your museum (yet).

Museum visits have long been viewed as educational: museum visitors were expected to learn something during their visit. But recently, museums started to feel differently about their purpose. They don’t necessarily want to teach, they want to share. There’s room for more than one story, one viewpoint. But with this new purpose of sharing and connecting, comes the need to open up for a broader crowd. A crowd without a history of visiting museums. Young people, people from color, people with limited means or a handicap. People living and working in the vicinity of the museum, but never come in. For as long as museums exist, adding objects to collections have been a way to draw more people in. But generally speaking, adding an object to a museum collection will draw more of the same kind of people in. So how to reach new audiences?

Exhibition Women of Japan, Museum No Hero, Delden (The Netherlands)

Last week, I visited a museum advertising a new addition to their collection as a “must see”. In this particular case, it was an object that used to belong to a famous popstar. In the exhibition brochure you can read the museum purchased the object to “attract a younger crowd”. At the time of my visit, I was the youngest person in the room, by far. A handful of elderly people strolled leisurely past the new treasure. I feel it’s safe to say the museum failed in attracting a different crowd. But why?

Exhibition Women of Japan, Museum No Hero Delden (The Netherlands)

Collecting for people you don’t know and don’t understand is tricky. You probably don’t speak their language (sometimes literally) and find it hard to find common ground. If you want new audiences to visit your museum, you need to question yourself and your staff members first on the Who and the Why. What is your motive to get new audiences in the museum? What can you offer and what can they bring to the table in return? In other words, what is the mutual benefit of their visit? You might not know the answer to these questions yet, because you can’t answer them without actually investing in the relationship between you and your (future) audience. Here are some tips on how to invest:

  1. Question yourself on your view of this ‘new audience’. What are, according to you, its characteristics? What are your assumptions? Be aware of your own background and projections.
  2. Visit places where you think your future audience might be found. Talk to individuals. More importantly, listen. What drives them, what do they struggle with, what inspires them? Try to be aware of your own perspectives and your gaze.
  3. Adjust. Redefine your new target audience. Who are they, what drives them, how do they see themselves? What can your museum offer them? Don’t do this alone, but do it together with the people you want to see in your museum.
  4. Think of new ways to interact with your future audience. Work together with representatives from your new target group. A traditional museum presentation might not be the answer. Maybe you want to share different stories. Open up to new possibilities.
  5. Organize pilots to test impact and results. Evaluate with representatives of your new target audience. Adjust and revise. Do it again, but better.

In the process, you might find you need to add a new object to your collection. Not for you, not for the collection, but for your new museum visitors.

If you find yourself needing assistance, strategy or advise on this topic, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

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