The Holiday Question: Programming for Expectations

Each visitor that sets foot into a museum carries with them a unique set of understandings and expectations that impact how he or she view their museum experience. This is related to why someone chooses to visit a museum – usually some combination of educational and entertainment-motivated reasoning.

For the museum professional, though, it can be difficult to balance a line between a dedication to education (as evidenced by AAM’s Excellence and Equity) and presenting an entertaining leisure-time activity. While many fear “Disney-ification,” in The Museum Experience, John Falk and Lynn Dierking note that most people recognize that theme parks and museums serve different purposes. Still, it is imperative that museums listen and respond to their audience’s expectations and wishes while still promoting educational goals. But then what about holidays?

In class we have talked about Candlelight Evening at The Farmers’ Museum as an example of people wanting to experience the “Christmas that never was.” Visitors have romanticized views of an old-fashioned Christmas that simply didn’t exist – in reality, for many years, especially in New England, it was often a quiet holiday spent at home. Still visions of decked halls and carolers and figgy puddings draw visitors to the event. The museum creates the image and experience their audience wants.

And holiday expectations aren’t just limited to Christmas. While interviewing an educator at the Strong National Museum of Play, she mentioned programming for the museum’s annual Halloween party which includes a “tattoo parlor” and various holiday crafts, as well as trick-or-treating in a safe environment. But is a holiday party educative?

By listening to audience expectations and needs a museum can begin to develop lasting relationships with visitors. By meeting preliminary needs, such as providing a safe environment for children or a beautiful, memorable evening at Christmas, a museum can open its doors to new visitors and pave the way for future visits. So certainly education should be considered in everything a museum does, but programming to meet visitor expectations is also a worthwhile investment in time and resources.

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