Transforming audiences, transforming museums

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.

8 thoughts on “Transforming audiences, transforming museums

  1. One essential aspect of transforming audiences is to transform museum staffs. Your staff should reflect the diversity of your community and the kinds of people you are seeking to attract. Through a combination of academics and paid internships we’re training up cultural technologists in New Mexico because we think that design and technology is a portal into professional careers in the cultural industry, especially for students from culturally diverse and low-income backgrounds and because we think their skill sets will be in increasing demand.

    1. Hi Mimi. I think your observation that internal stakeholders need to transform alongside their audiences is important, although I wonder whether bringing in new staff is the best or only way to do that. Yesterday, Alyson at Frankly, Green + Webb put up a post about the Digital R&D fund’s Digital Culture report, in which she reports being “struck by the degree to which organisational issues and poor basic infrastructure and systems are hampering activity. It’s something we’ve been observing across the country and seeing have a particularly significant effect on small to medium organisations and those growing rapidly through externally funded projects…”
      It seems to suggest that there needs to be continued focus on digital literacy of existing staff, as well as boards and other stakeholders.

      I love that you’re training new cultural technologists, however, and particularly from diverse and low-income backgrounds. Is there anywhere we can read about the program? How many students are you working with on that project.

      1. Yes, we do need to train our current staff more, but that’s a common problem not just with museums and cultural institutions. In my experience, museums aren’t any worse at training their staffs than most private sector companies. Most private sector employees are expected to keep themselves up to date on their own time with no help from their employer. The most common model of keeping your staff up to date in the private sector is firing old employees and hiring younger cheaper ones to replace them. There are obvious problems with that solution, but that’s how it tends to work out.

        The private sector companies that are good about providing staff development opportunities (rather than firing employees) also tend to have many more resources at their disposal than the average non-profit museum. It’s rare that a small company does a really good job training their employees. It’s usually the Googles and Apples of the world that have the best staff development programs.

        When looking for models for current staff training and development we may have to start innovating on our own, rather than looking to the private sector for positive examples (which is what we often do). I think this is where the museum community as a whole can make a difference. There are few institutions in our sector that can individually afford the kinds of programs we need, but if we were to pool our resources around already existing communities, like MCN, we could potentially accomplish much more than trying to solve this problem each on our own.

        The private sector tends to stray away from collaborative solutions to staffing problems because competition for the best employees, and protection of proprietary knowledge discourages it in a competitive environment. But our community is different in that we’re generally not competing directly with each other, we’re mission driven and we’re resource constrained. The cost of not collaborating with each other on this problem (and others) may be much higher than the potential risk of increased museum worker mobility.

      2. Matt, hi! I don’t disagree with that (although if museums are going to be truly “postdigital” any time soon, then internal training and infrastructure will continue to be part of that process). I am interested about board and other stakeholder education in regards to digital (and other) transformations, however, particularly in context of that stakeholder resistance and negotiation that Napoli and Seb both speak to. Do you think existing communities like MCN can also help with those kinds of questions?

      3. That’s harder to say since those stakeholders aren’t generally as engaged with the museum community so much as their individual institutions. The problem with donating stakeholders has more to do with culture than it does education or digital literacy. Many big donors simply don’t care about our missions in the same way we do or for the same reasons. What we should probably do is either find the next generation of big donors who understand these issues without our coaching, or find whatever revenue stream(s) we’re going to need to mitigate their loss. If you can’t get through resistance, go around it.

        The individual donor funding model is already filled with problems, this is just another one to throw on the pile. As a sector, we should always be trying to find sustainable alternatives to that model. It will likely take a long time and a lot of experimenting to find those alternatives, but regardless of the specific issues raised here it’s a model that we probably shouldn’t be relying on as heavily as we often do.

  2. Dear Suse,

    I have several responses to this piece, but not a lot of time this morning to go in depth. I really like and appreciate the seemingly genuine querying of changes to audience makeup, but I think there are a few problems with the structure of this argument. One, is that Napoli seems to come from a place of technological determinism, and makes the mistake that many such determinists make which is putting undue emphasis on technological innovation and advancement. Yes, the evolution of technological tools does allow for greater measurement and rationalization of audiences, but it is only correlated with changes in consumption, not causative. Napoli only implies the foregoing, but then he is declarative in saying that the shift towards engagement is a response to improved measurement technology.

    This is clearly and palpably false to me. The shift towards engagement may be aided by tech, but is not impelled by it. Rather the shift towards engagement is generated by cultural consumption becoming the primary way professionals think about the museum visit. The visitor long ago became a consumer and the marketing revolution has made this kind of consumption commensurate with a certain “lifestyle”. (This in turn has to do with socio-economic changes that ripple through the culture since the installation of a Fordist economy and the increasing privatization of experience and the falling away of the state as the primary social construct through which we define ourselves.) These new forms of measurement and the generation of data on what visitors actually do is NOT about re-imagining the audience theoretically; I believe it’s about finding out what their needs are so institutions can induce to come and keep coming back. This data is about being able to predict audience behavior, that is control it. Most places are essentially trying to increase market share.

    Lastly, there is a conflation here that obfuscates: you seem to be mixing up audiences and patrons. Visitors, which is just the term I prefer, are distinct from patrons who financially support institutions with big gifts. They are a completely different audience from the people you want to generally flock to the museum. I think the underlying tension is a conflict between types of experience that are associated with class: that is a quiet, contemplative one versus a loud, democratic, untutored visit.

    More later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s