What if reimagining museums begins by asking, “Who do we serve?”
Recently, I’ve been struggling with one of the central questions in museum planning: “Who is it for?”
I Zoomed up Kyle and we toyed with this question. Now, he’s generously given all of us space to play together.
I’ve created exhibits for three decades, and that question — ”Who is it for?” — is one we always ask when starting a project.
These days, it’s a question that keeps playing in my mind.
That question used to be entirely synonymous with “Who is the audience?” or “Who are the visitors?” But “Who is it for?” is sometimes different from (just) the people who come to our site.
“Who is it for?” can also be “Who do we serve?” From there, you’re just a step away from “Why do we exist?”
Let me see if I can illustrate what I mean with a story.
One of the many temples in Kathmandu attracts a growing number of cultural tourists. Visitors from around the world come to the site, buy a ticket, pay a guide, take a photo, and leave. But the temple is a living part of the culture of the city, created to serve the neighborhood.
Who is the temple for?
A recent interpretive plan for this site understands that (respectful) visitors can also benefit the neighborhood. In consultation with the surrounding community, the planners recommended encouraging tourists to spend time wandering beyond the temple itself. In doing so, they might spend a few dollars at a shop or at a chai stall, spreading the wealth beyond the government’s agents.
Who is the audience in this scenario? Who does the temple serve? Who does the tourism serve?
Since most museums are either non-profits or government agencies, we must (almost by definition) serve.
Who do we exist to serve? Who does your museum serve? That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Time to play.
Does your museum exist to serve its Board?
Do you exist to serve the funders?
Do you exist to serve the staff?
Probably none of those, currently. But what if? What would it look like if we did exist to serve any of those groups?
What else can we consider?
Society? Future generations? Too broad. Try again.
Tourists? If you think so, try digging deeper. This may be your audience and you do serve them, but why? For whose benefit? There’s something deeper there.
Do you serve the objects?
Are you the Lorax and you speak for the trees?
Does your museum exist to serve itself? (test: how many decisions are based on ticket sales?)
The land your institution sits upon?
The person who created that treasured object? The people who used it?
Do you serve the ancestors?
Hopefully more than one of those. And probably others.
What would it do to define that list, prioritize it, and be clear about it as part of your next interpretive or strategic plan? What would that mean to why you exist, what you do, and how you do it?
I honestly don’t know. But I do know it should be different for each museum, park, and historic site. And I do believe these questions are often best explored together.
If you’d like to join a small cohort of other museum thinkers to dig deep into this and other aspects of Why for your museum, I’m launching a series of free workshops. Learn more and sign up here.