A few weeks ago, we shared with you a post by prominent blogger Penelope Trunk. Her post was provocative and scathing, describing why she found museums irrelevant. A review of the comments the post received largely echoed her opinion, though there were some who disagreed.
We noted that we found some of her points astute, which seems to have roiled the pot a bit more, as our inboxes found. While some of you who contacted us agreed that if a significant number of visitors or potential visitors feel this way, then yes, museums must do better, others took issue with the fact that we could even consider any of her points as legitimate, as they felt she was an outlier.
Unfortunately, Penelope Trunk is no outlier.
And why do we think her viewpoints are more mainstream than we would like? In part, because her opinions are echoed increasingly in the media, especially among significant philanthropists, as well as among the many museum goers we have surveyed and interviewed in the past decade. Not every museum goer loves going to museums. When a museum-going mom says that museums are a “necessary evil,” there is a problem, especially when that feeling of discontent is percolating among a significant number of other visitors as well.
Americans are also voting with their feet, and museums are receiving fewer votes. One simply has to look at the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), which is tracking long-term and significant declines in the percentage and raw number of Americans visiting art museums and history attractions (including museums), to see that museums are important to fewer Americans over time. While many history-related museums have been experiencing attendance pressures for some time, our internal indicators also find mounting attendance pressures at many science centers and children’s museums, particularly in the past five years.
So if museums are working hard to increase their relevance, or even hold steady, why are fewer and fewer Americans visiting? And why are we seeing this relevance gap? And is the gap mission related, or how that mission is shared? We suspect the latter, and we do not at all agree with Penelope Trunk’s blanket condemnation of museums. The mission of most museums is NOT irrelevant. The general public still values art, science, history, and culture.
We also know from our own experiences, as well as from some of the many museum goers we have surveyed or interviewed, that museums are cherished community institutions that inspire, delight, engage, provoke, and inform. But if that mission is not carried out in a way that is compelling, then the mission is inaccessible and unknown, and thus less relevant because it is not touching the lives of visitors or potential visitors.
And since fewer and fewer Americans are visiting museums, it begs a key question: are museums doing their absolute best at sharing their missions, given that many are losing audiences?
The data says we have to do better. With increased external pressures, limited resources, and questions of relevance rising, museums have to build on their differentiating factors to create the most meaningful experiences that have enduring impact.
Some museums do this rather well. Many more are falling short.
Therefore, it is critical that we look closely at the types of experiences that fuel growing discontent just as much as we need to thoroughly understand the types of experiences that are transformative and life changing.
One museum professional responded to our last post with the comment, “I believe [connecting with visitors] has less to do with research and data and more to do with emotion and engagement.” We truly believe that emotion and engagement are a huge part of the magic that museums can create. Unfortunately, we don’t see as much evidence of that as we would like from our audience research.
But we strongly disagree with this dismissal of research and data. Emotion and engagement are measurable, and we know from our client work that research and data can be valuable tools that enable far deeper, more magical, and more meaningful museum experiences. When the field throws up their hands and says what museums do cannot be measured, they cede control of their destinies to critics like Penelope Trunk.
Instead, museums need to invest in figuring out what it is they do that is so powerful and meaningful, deliver impact, measure it, and make a case for themselves that no one else can make. Indeed, we’re doubling down to field more research, analysis, and synthesis to help museums build on the things that they do extremely well, as well as help museums shed the things they do that hinder their ability to create long-term impact.
All of this brings us back to why we are launching Museums R+D. We cannot assume we are doing our best, we cannot assume we are universally loved, even by those who visit us regularly. We cannot assume that we are having a long-term impact. We have to understand why some museums are failing to connect with many visitors and growing numbers of non-visitors. We have to understand what museums do well that cannot be replicated easily elsewhere. And we have to become much better at understanding the long-term, transformative impact museums are capable of, measuring it, articulating it, and extending those types of experiences throughout the field.
This is challenging work. This is time-consuming work. This is perhaps the most important work for museums to do right now.
We have been wanting to tackle some of these issues for years, and have developed the Museums R+D membership program as a way of helping museums pool resources to field the research museums need, while also gaining new insights into their own audiences.
But we’ll be honest. This is also expensive work. Membership will not be inexpensive, but we’re committed to leveraging our internal and external resources well to make sure it’s within reach of most museums that truly value understanding how they can do the best job possible fulfilling their mission and creating the most meaningful experiences possible for growing audiences.
We’ll be sharing more information in September. We hope you will join us.