Transforming audiences, transforming museums

Posted on January 27, 2016


Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences.
Seb Chan

What does it mean to transform an audience? Is it a shift in the make-up of an audience, how that audience is conceived, how an audience behaves and interacts with an institution, or all three? I’ve been trying to unpack this idea a little over the last few weeks, since Seb Chan included a short discussion on the topic in his recent post rounding up 2015. Is audience development the same as audience transformation, or does it miss some critical aspect of change within the audience, and their interactions with an institution?

Philip M. Napoli’s work on audience evolution within the media sector articulates some useful perspectives. In his 2008 paper, Napoli proposed that the evolution of media technologies over time has enabled greater measurement and rationalisation of audiences, which in turn leads to changes in how an audience is perceived, measured, and responded to. As technologies change, the dynamics of consumption change, and previously unmeasurable aspects of the audience behaviour become more quantifiable and more visible. In response, the “invisible fictions” that exist about an audience and their behavioural patterns shift, and new conceptualisations of the institutionalised audience come into existence. Audience evolution, therefore, is as much about a perception of change as truly alternative dynamics of behaviour.

The relationship between digital and audience transformation, then, is as likely related to the increased capacity to measure and perceive audiences and their behaviours as it is to shifts in the dynamics of those behaviours enabled by digital technologies. It makes sense, then, that some of the most innovative museum projects we’ve seen in recent years combine audience experiences with data-collection and analysis. By seeking to make visible the behaviours of museum audiences, the fluid construct of “the audience” can destablise enough to allow alternative conceptualisations of the audience to emerge. This process of re-imagining the audience is important because, as Ian Ang notes, institutions “depend on the actual existence of the audience in very material terms.”

Napoli proposes that traditional approaches to audience measurement, such as how many people were potentially exposed to a media product (and its advertising), have been undermined by the contemporary media environment. He suggests that the shift towards engagement within the media sector is a response to improved measurement technologies, in which it became possible to question whether mere exposure to content equals effectiveness. Similarly, measuring and demonstrating engagement within the museum environment can be understood as a crucial element in demonstrating value, which has become increasingly important in context of competition for funding dollars and attention. As Rob Stein argues in his 2014 CODE | WORDS essay:

Our impassioned arguments about how museums can change lives and bring communities closer together are all well-and-good, but they mean very little to a data-driven philanthropist if we cannot bring supporting evidence with us to prove our point.

He continues:

Now that museums are beginning to have the tools and expertise at their disposal to monitor, track, record, and analyze all the various ways that the public benefits from their work, the real task begins to redesign the process and program of museums and to embed impact-driven data collection into every aspect of our efforts.

I think that this is at the crux of this digital transformation/audience transformation question. As we can measure our audiences in new ways, we expect to be able to measure how we impact and affect them, in order to respond to them differently. But this is a controversial process. Core to Napoli’s conceptualization of audience transformation is the notion that there will be stakeholder resistance and negotiation–that audience transformation is a necessarily contentious process. This will come as little surprise to any institution that has faced the question of whether to seek new audiences, which means coming up with new offerings, or to continue to invest in familiar, existing stakeholder audiences. As Seb notes:

In the US ‘transforming audiences’ is especially tricky as the culture of private funding means that for most privately funded museums the ‘actual audience’ is a handful of board members and ‘significant donors’ (foundations and corporations), not those who actually attend or use the museum and its collections as visitors. The desired outcomes of different board members of the same institution may vary widely, and at times may even be in conflict with each other – pity the poor Director who is squeezed in the middle!

Seeking new audiences, or to transform audiences, can be highly destabilising for institutions that rely on the concepts of the audience that they are invested in. This problem was at the crux of a discussion at MCN2015 on Museum Business Models and New Revenue Streams in the Digital EconomyThe premise of the session was that museums are “overly dependent on the largess of a dying breed of individual philanthropists and unable to demonstrate their impact and social value to younger, civic-minded audiences…” The mystery meat seems to be in the gap between the known audience and its alternatives.

Last year,  argued that the museum visitor has undergone “a subtle transformation into an autonomous consumer” in response to cultural policy (in the UK), the new museology, the onset of an experience economy, and the rise of marketing and branding as the primary methods for visitor engagement and audience development. In response, engagement in museums is now understood as a mechanism for providing meaningful–and personal–experiences. Aimee Chang, Director of Engagement, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, proposes that audience engagement, as it relates to museums, is “a philosophical shift throughout institutions—a deep consideration of varied audiences when thinking about what museums are and do.” Of course, seeking to engage museum audiences in our work isn’t new. Museums have sought to re-envision and revolutionise their relationships with visitors for generations. But what do you do when the audiences you have and the audiences you’re seeking look different, and want different things? And how do museums allow their audiences to evolve, and evolve their own offerings in response?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about audience transformation, and the role digital plays in that process. How critical is the transformation of the museum’s own internal audiences and stakeholders within that process? And how have your own conceptions of “audience” shifted over time?

PS – If you’re interested in further unpacking ideas related to digital transformation, I’d recommended MCN’s Digital Transformations and Strategy SIG.