Are we engaged yet? What happens after the pledge is made?

Just about everyone I know in this sector seems to have harboured some fantasy of having his or her own museum; of doing things differently. Some want a small rebel museum (easier for experimentation); some want to take charge of a bigger space for really radical change (which brings to mind Jasper Visser’s recent post on big ships versus speedboats). I am curious as to why this is. Is it simply a question of ambition? Does everyone want to be “the guy” (instead of “the guy the guy counts on”)? I don’t quite think that’s it. Is it that the engaged sections of the sector are full of entrepreneurs-in-museum clothing who love the institution of the museum, but grate against its limitations? Is it simply because, like imagining what you’re going to be when you grow up, it gives a focus for crafting a vision of the future?

I suspect one factor is the very fact that we (and by we I mean anyone who thinks seriously on the question of the museum, and what its purpose is and how it should best fulfill that purpose) are so engaged with the problem. On some level, all engagement brings with it a promise or a pledge for further action. It is a gearing up in readiness for something further. And so when museum professionals engage so seriously in regular and ongoing rumination about the questions of what a museum should be doing, and how, and for whom, the next natural step is to want to do something with that engagement; to fulfill the pledge that was made upon immersion in the subject. To take the ideas and tentative solutions being dreamed up and discussed on blogs and in Tweets everywhere and test them out.

That’s not always possible (although pilot projects and the like can provide some opportunity for discovering whether an idea had real legs, or was merely a beautiful fiction). Acting upon the urge to make serious change can be difficult until you control a budget and a staff; until you have your own department or museum. And so people dream of having a museum of their very own and think about what they would do differently; about how they would start a museum from scratch, conceive of a kinetic museum or re-imagine museums. Some of these conversations are simply fun. Some are great intellectual forays that get the mental juices flowing in an entirely pleasurable way. But some, no doubt, come from a sense of powerless and frustration at a perceived need for change, without having the mechanisms to do anything about it.

It makes me wonder whether the same is true of museum audiences. Once they are engaged, do they too have an urge for something more? Once a museum has put time into courting a visitor and getting them engaged, does the museum then consider how to make good on its pledge for further action? I am sure that the best museums do, although I often have the impression that the discussion finishes at “engagement” rather than being about a lifelong relationship. Is there a level of frustration, then, when someone is engaged and committed if the relationship stalls? Sue Bell Yank recently farewelled MOCA’s Engagement Party, asking in the title of the post if she could “have her ring back?”, and I think her post is a useful metaphor for considering how we deal with museum audiences once they have coyly batted their eyelashes at our proposals, and said yes.

If you make an effort to engage someone, whether for a speaking engagement or a marriage, there is an expectation that accompanies the pledge. And if the  relationship doesn’t meet those expectations, there can arise a frustration that can lead to disengagement, to breaking off future involvement. And I wonder if that is a problem that confronts this sector in both professional and public circles. If a great museum professional’s commitment and ideas aren’t recognised, they will probably stop giving them. If a visitor (or user) cannot see validity in their input or ongoing relationship with the museum, they probably will stop committing to it. How can we make sure that neither of those outcomes happen? How can museums make sure that engaged staff continue to feel that their contributions are valid, even if they are not always practical? How can we help visitors feel appreciated, even if they are just lurkers in our physical and digital spaces?

Dating and courtship might be the first steps in a new relationship, but engagement isn’t the last. So often it seems that our discussions end at that point, but I’m not sure that’s where they should stop. How can we utilise the investment (whether of time, money, or emotion) that someone has made into our exhibitions, museums, programs, or their own careers, to ensure that the relationship continues to be fulfilling?

Does your (current) museum see engagement as being the goal, or just a stage in a longer relationship? And have you ever harboured your own fantasy of having a museum of your very own? If so, what would you do differently?

7 thoughts on “Are we engaged yet? What happens after the pledge is made?

  1. Okay, so I will take the bait. Five years ago, I was hired as Director of a small university-based museum (staff of 3, plus student support) that had seen better times. No real exhibit upgrades had occurred in over 20 years. Attendance had gone from a reported high of 40,000 per year in the 70s to under 9,000 when I was hired on.

    After a revolving door of Directors, my mandate was something along the lines of “make it work.” With a staff of three, I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted, pretty much. With so much to do, I really felt like a kid in the candy store. After the first 3 years, we turned around the quantitative measures and passed the initial test. We were no longer an albatross around the neck of the University, but an asset. Today we work to institutionalize and expand on those initial successes.

    Here is some of what I have gotten out of all this.

    1) I like the notion that relevance leads to engagement. I like the way Robert Janes approaches this in Museums in a Troubled World. He asks something along the lines of, “if museums did not exist, how would they be created today and what would be the role of the public?”

    2) Consider the marriage analogy of the blog post a bit more – sticking through the rough times, sickness and in health, etc. etc. Our Museum (Native American/historic era) seeks to be relevant and engage with our surrounding community – 95% African-American, blue collar/industrial area. We have a 5 year evolving relationship with the community. Five years ago, at a contentious community meeting I was told “don’t tell me about what the University wants to do in our community – the last time they were here for two years doing their research and all we got was that map on the wall over there.” Three years ago, in response to an invitation to work with area youth in developing a cultural heritage exhibit for our museum the same leader responded “I don’t want to have nothing to do with those low pants wearing kids.” He ended up speaking at the exhibit opening and noting that “we need to let more of the community know about our exhibit at the Museum.” One year ago when the leader sat on a focus group for the redesign of our exhibit hall, he expressed little interest in what went on inside the museum exhibits, but talked a lot about the need for a community garden of traditional foods. This spring the community planted the garden on part of our 40-acre site and will give presentations in the fall on traditional foods in combination with our traditional medicinal plant sanctuary. The same leader regularly is out hoeing up the garden weeds in the hot August sun. For the past two years we hosted Black History Month celebrations organized by the community. Yesterday we met with the same community leader to make final arrangements for the eight week AmeriCorps Team we begin hosting tomorrow at the Museum who will work on site, in the community, and in an adjacent State Park. This has been a 5 year courtship where the Museum has become relevant to the community and the community has engaged. Every step of the process has been consistent with our Museum’s Mission Statement.

    A distinction I will draw from the post is the observation of “considering how we deal with museum audiences once they have coyly batted their eyelashes at our proposals, and said yes.” An important point is that in the examples listed above, these were not “our proposals” meaning the Museum’s but “our proposals” meaning the museum and the community’s.

    3) This leads me to something I have been thinking a lot about of late. I am struck that part of our job as museum professionals today is to demonstrate/educate the general public on the relevance of our/their cultural heritage (broadly defined) that is curated in the public museums such that the public demands engagement, will settle for nothing less, and also take the responsibility to support and fund these institutions to which they are engaged. That relevance will require museums to rethink much of what we do, if we continue doing it primarily because that is what we have always done. This goes back to Janes’ prompt to think of a world without museums – what would we create today?

    This is all a pretty tall order, but one that will lead to long-term sustainable instituions – and really, a pretty darn exciting challenge for us to address!

  2. Educational and thought-provoking Blog. Thank you. Also Hat’s-Off to Robert Connoly for taking a creative approach to audience development eg.,gardening. No doubt his leadership will yield a rich crop of community support. Thanks

  3. Robert, thank you so much for your thoughts. There are a couple of things in your response (and some others that have followed this post from people on Twitter) that really trigger thoughts for me.

    I’m interested that you point out that it’s not only the museum that make proposals, but the community as well. I hadn’t really considered that side of things. Do you think that the two must happen in concert? That the community must have some sense of being able to shape the institution? Does the community owe the institution anything (even loyalty), or is that side of things completely one-sided? I suppose that is in part what I’m thinking about when I consider longer-term engagement, but through a different lens.

    Mia Ridge, via Twitter, pointed out that “sometimes museums would like to be more central to people’s lives than is realistic given they’re usu specialist (cf libraries)”, and I think that’s probably true. Maybe the idea of engagement isn’t even realistic except with a very small number of people at any one time? Is a museum considered successful at engagement if it only regularly impacts a small number of people, but makes a real difference in their lives? Nina Simon’s latest post on their new Loyalty Lab seems to be getting at these questions of how to manage longer engagement, after acknowledging that the MAH has “very high ability to form relationships with visitors, but very low ability to capitalize on those interactions.” So the MAH seems to have the engagement side nailed, but the follow-up is harder. Is this a common problem?

    And Robert – on your final point – how do you think that museums should be educating the public on the value of museums? I have been talking with a few people about how we demonstrate the value of museums in other-than-economic terms lately, and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  4. Suse – I think you are raising a lot of important questions. On the issue of “does the community owe the institution anything (even loyalty)” I think the answer is a most definite yes. But to obtain that loyalty, the museum must be relevant to the public. Here are a couple of approaches to that relevance. A local museum on the outskirts of Memphis that interprets 19th Century farm life in the area had a very limited outside visitation with no school groups. Their docent led programs primarily told a genealogy of the family, and had folks look at pretty things, that they could not touch – no reason for the youth to have any investment in this place. An intern from our Museum Studies program was hired by the Museum to address their sagging visitation. An electronic survey was sent out to area teachers on what the museum could do for them. I was amazed at the volume of the response that showed the community had an interest conceptually in what the museum had to offer, if the museum could provide same. Fast forward one year, the museum developed a trunk exhibit to go into the schools, programming on site, and now have regular school programs, and increased visitation. What was important in this process was asking the community what they wanted out of the museum, the museum seeing how to fit that want within their mission, and acting on same. The community now has a greater investment in the museum. In the same way, at my own museum, we now have exhibits not just about the local community but that were also created by the local community. The community will develop a greater loyalty to such an institution.

    I had a very interesting experience a couple of years ago. I asked a visiting delegation of the Chickasaw Nation of Native Americans if they would be interested in having an exhibit on their people at our Museum. The proposal completely fit within our mission. The Nation quickly agreed and asked “What do you want in the exhibit?” to which we responded “What do you want the people of Memphis to know about the Chickasaw Nation?” They created an exhibit that is made completely with their voice. While the representatives of the Nation were visiting Memphis to install the exhibit, I had a very interesting discussion. I asked one of the members their thoughts on our new First Americans exhibit. She smiled politely. I then went on to talk about the upgrade, how it was more aesthetically pleasing, contained up-to-date information on archaeological studies of migration across the Bering Straits into the New World, and she smiled politely again. Clearly, she was just being polite, so I asked her what the issue was. She noted that all I was saying was true, but the upgrade did not tell her People’s story, as they believe that the Chickasaw Nation originated in what is now North America and do not buy the “scientific” migration story any more than the science folks buy the Chickasaw origin story. That hit me very hard. We are supposed to be a museum that interprets Native Americans from past and present. How could we not include the Native Peoples’ perspective? So we made that change. We now tell the story from both perspectives In sum, I think this is an example of our commitment to demonstrating our relevance to a set of museum stakeholders.

    The Participatory Museum is a buzzword of late. I think this concept is often simply implemented as a physical “hands-on” approach. I prefer to think in terms of a model of contributory, collaborative, co-creative, and hosted activities as model laid out in Nina Simon’s book of the same name. I particularly like the concept of “co-creative” projects. Properly carried out, these are not activities where the museum comes up with a good idea and then invites the visitor to participate. Rather, co-creative projects are truly co-created by the visitor. In this way, the visitor becomes more of a stakeholder in the museum, not because they had a Participatory experience in just a hands-on sort of way, but because they are now actually a part of the museum and become invested in same. This is the case with our African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis exhibit See this link:

    My only quibble (and I could be completely in error) with Nina’s Loyalty Lab concept is that in reading the blog post, there was the constant reference to “we” which I took to mean the museum staff. I think a challenge is to actively engage the community in the problem solving of how to maintain loyalty. Such an approach is messier and perhaps takes up more time. However, I think the long-term commitment on the part of the public is the payoff. If you think of in terms of marketing, commercial products are focus grouped and surveyed to death. When I stay at a hotel, I am certain to get a follow-up email asking about my stay. I suppose I walk into one hundred or so different museums each year. I cannot think of a single instance in the last year where I was asked what I thought about my experience – such as “what would make you more loyal to this institution?” I get lots of emails and hard copy mail about events that are taking place in museums, but I do not recollect any asking me what type of events I would like to see in the future – and I am a museum junkie

    I believe the education needed is a very long term process, and a shift we need to make. I wonder if the short-term perspective of our socio-economic institutions are infecting us with the same mindset. I am trying to instill the mindset of not thinking about where our Museum will be six months from now, but five years from now. I go back to Robert Janes’ observation from Museums in a Troubled World where demonstrating relevance is a key. I suspect those museums that can demonstrate that relevance will continue to thrive.

    Thanks for providing a venue for this conversation.

    1. Robert, thank you. There is much to learn from and think about here. Your point about demonstrating relevance is an important one, but also one that I think many museums struggle with. I was reading a case study on the blog yesterday, about starting a new venture and the importance of finding and filling “an important unmet customer need.” It struck me as a useful question to ask for museums as well. Your example from the farm life museum seems to speak to that. Initially, the museum existed, but had not found what the unmet customer need was, and therefore had no concept of how to fill that need. Once you’d sent out the electronic surveys to discover what the need that the community had was, it was then possible to act upon that discovery and become something more integral to their actual needs.

      Similarly, in the longer term, working out what a museum community’s unmet needs are could have good dividends for demonstrating relevance, and helping the museum thrive in the longer term. If what the community needs is a place for gathering and indeed gardening, then providing a communal garden makes sense. If the community needs educational programs that are portable, rather than expecting the schools to be able to come to the museum proper for whatever reason, then a trunk exhibit makes sense. Working out what the actual need is, and how to fill that need, probably impacts significantly on whether a museum is or remains relevant in its own community.

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