What audience research can teach the rest of the museum field
Can museums improve their internal culture by taking a cue from their (oft-mistreated) visitor-facing teams?
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Considering the business museum workers are in — connecting people to the creations of humans and nature — there’s little alignment between the internal and external relationships which make museum work happen.
Nothing mandates that internal and external museum structures have to be the same. Amazon hardly mirrors its legendary customer obsession in its sometimes controversial org culture in offices or warehouses. The practice of Agile is customer-focused, but its rapid test/learn/innovate structure is notoriously hard to manage in complex organizations. Can museums be both customer- and worker-centered? Why not?
Museums manage their collections nine ways to Sunday but have trouble tackling employee engagement. (Museums as organizations are hardly unique in the latter respect.) You can catalog objects, but they don’t express dissatisfaction with surveys the way that actual people do.
Readers of SuperHelpful Letters know the problems with how audience research fits into the decision-making structure of the institution. Museums have many ways to ask questions of visitors but don’t always know what questions to ask or what to do with the information. Whom do you share it with internally? Why? How quickly do we act upon what we’ve learned? Do we apply findings to different departments? To quote Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “Who decides who decides?”
My own museum journey
My personal museum experience is a long journey of getting closer to audiences. I didn’t work in museums, hadn’t even taken an art history class, before ending up in the production and technology side of the publications department of an encyclopedic art institution.
It’s not surprising that the work was siloed—considering production vs editorial is one of the longstanding dichotomies in publishing. What was interesting was how removed I could be from our visitors. Though I worked on hundreds of catalogues and recommended and set up systems and workflows for an equally large number of colleagues over the years, it took a switch from work on publications to work on labels before my responsibilities brought me out into the galleries.
Working with a new team on labels happened about the same time I started looking at techniques like Design Thinking and variations of Agile. (I won’t get here into the debate about just how much design or agility there is in either of these practices.) I will say that when creating workflows with new teams, the same empathy and listening skills which are so important with visitors and customers are just as important with colleagues.
Trying to pilot a digital version of a print publication taught me the same lesson as an ill-conceived exhibition. I didn’t understand the client department’s needs, nor did I reach out to enough print and digital colleagues like editors and UX experts. The project was a bust.
About the same time that I’d outsourced my professional relationships on the digital publishing project to software and vendors, I was hiding behind typesetting tech and workflow systems in my work on labels. My job had given me the privilege of not having to think about our audiences and their authentic experiences in our galleries. That was for other people.
This was setting me back. I would get late corrections because type specs didn’t work IRL, or because I hadn’t mediated miscommunications between designers and curators and editors.
So I became a better partner to the graphic designers and editors by accompanying them to meetings in the galleries to help with a difficult label setup, such as how much text could fit on a wall, comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and still be efficiently typeset in InDesign. We would stand in an open gallery, holding up rulers and proofs against the wall, drawing interest from visitors who wanted to see what was going on. (Such interactions seem like a dream now.)
I also would go to galleries during exhibition installations to work on the large print label booklets for visitors with visual or mobility issues. Meeting with the curator in actual time during installation helped us craft a narrative for the booklet (replaced, post-reopening, with a digital guide). In both instances, this was the most a part of the living institution that I’d felt in my many years at the museum. The workflows I spent years crafting from the sanctum of my office were now taking a physical, audience-shaped form.
Visitor priority, staff sacrifice
We in museums have all heard how every one of us should think of ourselves as part of visitor experience, from generating the loftiest content to picking up trash on the floors. I think the problem is deeper than just one of insulating silos. The internal messaging around the audience shows the priorities of the institutions. Visitor-facing workers are often the first ones laid off. We can acknowledge the lack of physical visitorship during the pandemic, but also the lack of imagination for all the work that VX staff—and others—could have done around the organization. Austerity and layoffs are hardly unprecedented solutions. Meanwhile, a million maintenance and support tasks go undone.
Understanding audiences has become yet another siloed function. It’s these divisions that have caught up with museums. Good audience research doesn’t bias itself to the usual suspects, especially now. It is about quantity and quality, is open-minded and not wedded to past efforts, demystifies and is ready, even excited, to be surprised, and always willing to hand over agency to those rarely centered in the cultural sector. To me, this sounds like the hallmarks of a progressive organization.
Who gets to decide?
And yet, museums too often limit access to audience research to certain staff and the board. Those power dynamics and imbalances distort the picture we get of our visitors (and of our staff) and lead to closed-door decision-making, which scales fractally all over the institution. To awkwardly rephrase the question above, “Do informed people inform people?”
This isn’t just the sequestering of information; it is the separation of learning. Everyone ends up equally with their own picture of visitors and the institution. In museums, some pictures are more equal than others.
Good audience research is a skill that practitioners should teach throughout the organization. Then, when these departments improve their listening and collaboration practices, their testing habits, and their willingness to experiment, they can give back to the visitor experience group. Just as we ask visitors, we need to ask colleagues. Especially now, when the pandemic has hybridized museum workplaces, perhaps permanently.
Museums need to be more holistic about their organizational culture—and can take a cue from the workers who deal with visitors. If they’re still around, that is. Museums will not survive without visitors, nor without the staff who know them best, nor without learning made plain throughout the organization.
Better audience research can, in return, inform better org culture. Listening to audiences can train us to listen to each other better and to give up power and authority. If we value what our audiences are telling us, and center them, we can break out of gatekeeping into real humanist collaboration. We’ll all feel that visitor experience is all of our jobs. Let’s hope it’s not too late.
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