A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

In 1942, a team of researchers set out to understand how they might strengthen the planes Allied forces were sending out on missions.

The researchers examined the planes and found a great deal of damage around the wings, tail, and the guts of the planes. (There’s probably a real name for that middle part of a plane, but I’m not smart about planes, so I’ll call it the guts.)

These were the areas where the researchers observed heavy enemy engagement. So, they concluded that the planes should be reinforced in those areas.

In 2020, a team of evaluators set out to understand who wasn’t engaging with their museum and why. They teamed up with people in the museum’s education and marketing departments to learn more.

They looked at visitor demographics, survey results, and observed visitor behavior and found that most visitors were engaging with the museum’s offerings with their hands and feet.

The data was clear — The museum needed more interactives to engage visitors.

What’s wrong with these pictures?

In the case of the WWII planes, Abraham Wald pointed out that the researchers studying Allied aircraft had only been looking at the planes that had actually made it back from their bombing missions. The planes that never made it back were suffering damage in the spots that weren’t being recorded by the investigators — The nose, propellers, and the thingy-spot between the tail and the guts. (Again, planes ain’t my thing.)

As for the museum, the marketing folks were looking at visitor preferences and demographics and, well… same story — Everyone is looking at how existing audiences are interacting with existing offerings.

Why chase engagement when you can pursue people’s goals?

Is your organization entirely focused on the planes that made it home?

Yes, you want to see greater “engagement”, but — and here’s where I’m really going to put our metaphors in the blender — do planes want to be engaged by the enemy?

Do people want to be engaged by museums?

What if we asked a jetfighter-airplane-thing if it wants to be engaged by enemy fire or severe weather or UFOs? It would probably tell us, “No, thanks. Gonna pass — On my way to complete a mission.”

If we asked a human-being-person-thing if they want to be engaged by a museum, they’d probably tell us, “Uhm, sure, if it’ll help me… [achieve my goal].”

What if we started to measure how well museums support people’s goals rather than visitor engagement?

What if your museum replaced its Director of Engagement with a Director of Thingy Spot?



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