#flmuseums 2: engaging people with museums

Onward…week 2 looks at engaging people with museums: “how museums can consider who does and does not visit the museum and how it is possible to engage with diverse audiences”. Only 13 steps, that’s a relief. Step 1 explores who does or doesn’t visit museums, bringing up questions around what, and who, museums are for, who is currently excluded from them and why. Communities may be excluded through lack of representation in collections and lack of opportunities for cultural participation…the case study looks at how Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery has sought to grow family audiences and engage the young with art.

Who visits museums? Issues highlighted from the DCMS stats (note: digital engagement does not appear to be included here):

  • over three in five adults (60.8%) in the upper socio-economic group visited a museum or gallery in the last year, a significantly higher proportion that the lower socio-economic group (38.6%)
  • 42.3% of ‘black and minority ethnic’ respondents had visited a museum, a difference of over 10 % when compared to ‘white’ respondents, of whom 53.1% had visited

A 1998 (!) survey found that the image of museums among ethnic groups (the image was of old buildings, a quiet and reverential atmosphere and a place for intellectuals or ‘posh people’) formed a major barrier to access.

Barriers to access Issues and solutions
Physical Is our museum building physically accessible? Is it open at times which suit different audiences? – Installation of ramps, handrails and seats.
Sensory Can our exhibitions, events, and facilities be used by people with hearing or sight impairments? – Objects which can be touched. Varied means of interpretation, such as taped guides, subtitled audiovisual programmes.
Intellectual Do our displays exclude people with limited prior knowledge of the collections or artists on show? Can people with learning disabilities access our services? – Consult and involve new audiences in the production of exhibitions. Evaluate levels of understanding amongst a range of audiences when developing exhibitions.
Financial Does our admission fee deter people on low incomes? Do our shop and café sell items that families can afford? – Offer free admission on certain days and publicise it widely. Take the museum into the community. Provide free transport. Admit schools and community groups free of charge.
Emotional or attitudinal Is our museum environment welcoming to new visitors? Do our staff have open attitudes to diversity? Is the style of our publicity inclusive or exclusive? – Staff training. Special events and ­activities to build confidence among new audiences.
Lack of involvement in decision making Does our museum consult potential new audiences and value the input of external stakeholders? – Develop projects in partnership with audiences. Establish a consultative panel.
Lack of access to information Does our publicity effectively reach and communicate with new audiences? – Develop new and accessible marketing networks and methods to information of communication. Publicity and orientation in large print/tape/ Braille/different languages, etc.
Cultural Do our collections, displays and events reflect the interests and life experiences of our target audience? – Proactive collecting, special exhibitions and events, redisplays with appropriate interpretation.
Technological Does our use of new media facilitate rather than hinder access for our audiences? Do we exploit new advances in technology to enable access? – Use of assistive technologies.

Are there any problems with listing the ‘barriers to access’ and their potential solutions in this way? Is it useful to segment the population in this way? Many frameworks can be used to understand why people do not engage with museums. Research from Leicester’s School of Museum Studies in 2002 explored other models for understanding what barriers there are, including lack of motivation. What motivates people to visit a museum? Even when barriers to access are identified and dismantled, people may still choose not to attend – some individuals do not believe museums will meet their specific needs.

Update: a post from Charlotte Jensen brought me to John Falk’s Identity and the museum visitor experience, which identifies five key motivations that underlie why people visit museums: explorer, experience seeker, recharger, professional/hobbyist, and facilitator. See this post, which also references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now that’s more like it.

The Walker Art Gallery

The Walker has had a turbulent relationship with its audiences since it was opened in 1877. When the gallery reopened after WW2 it focused on a local audience, believing that access to art was important to the people of Liverpool in the difficult post-war era. However, as the years passed, the Walker focused more and more on its success in engaging with national art galleries and organisations rather than focusing on Liverpool audiences. How might this affect people’s perception of the Walker today? And, shall we watch the vid?


the addition of time management tips is a good idea – another advises that 15 mins per discussion task will help keep to the estimated 2 hours

Up until about 2006 the Walker Art Gallery in was seen as a rather traditional art gallery with a typical audience of older visitors, tourists and well informed art enthusiasts. Over recent years a targeted programme of audience development initiatives and improvements to the gallery has gradually reversed this image, and the Walker Art Gallery is now a vibrant family friendly venue. Not only do more people visit the gallery, but audiences have also grown more diverse and more and more visitors engage with the gallery in many different ways.

What’s wrong with ‘just’ being a museum? I still need a better way into the discussions, it’s way too much and feels to random as a stream, but there seemed to be a certain amount re passing fads and fashions, babies and bathwater, what ‘culture’, high or otherwise, is about….

  • How might museums and galleries respond to this debate?
  • Is it possible to meet everyone’s demands and needs?
  • What strategies might be used to achieve a balance between the needs of different audiences? What ethical issues might such strategies pose?

Should all museums be family friendly? See the Kids in Museums Manifesto. For some, all these activities, dressing up, cartoons etc can be offputting rather than engaging.

Actually, children and families are well catered for at most museums, and indeed many museums seem to think they’re the only audience that matters, which doesn’t help the fact that a significant proportion of the public thinks that museums are _only_ for children. So, how to reach more older people? How to attract those who feel museums aren’t for them because they’re “not middle class”? How to reach ethnic minorities, who may see museums, especially ones like the British Museum, as bastions of Empire? What about people who are put off by civic pomp, which most museums are more than happy to engage with, despite any social history credentials they may have?

Think of a museum, gallery, or heritage site that you have visited. How would you approach making it more engaging and accessible to a wider audience? Why does it have to? If you can’t be all things to all men…Can’t a museum have a target group? For example, I’m not interested in our local circus museum – although there is something in the old adage that everything is interesting if you get into it enough.

The answer may be in the trend we looked at last week, ie address niche segments digitally – this is largely how I interact with Forstadsmuseet, which is targeted at local residents. Otherwise museums may be in danger of losing sight of their key mission.



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