To Please All? Or To Please Most…

In order to be sustainable, museums must reach a broad audience. According to Ron Crouch’s article, entitled “Rules for a New Demographic Ballgame”, America’s museum audience is quickly changing. Within the non-Hispanic white population, younger generations are getting progressively smaller because people are having fewer children, yet minority group populations are stable or rising, especially in the younger age groups.

What does this mean for museum audiences? Is there a need to senior-ize exhibits? In my opinion, the answer is a loud no. Instead, there’s more of a need to survey both museum and non-museum audiences, and see what they want. But here’s the problem: with the constantly growing diversification of the American population, there are more groups of people to please and involve in the museum setting. To involve as many people and groups as possible in museums, people must feel that their voices are heard.

Involving the greater public in the museum decision-making process is integral to cultivating new interest in a museum, but the question of when to stop is a difficult one. How many different groups need to be represented? If the museum is situated in an incredibly diverse area, must a representative of every group be included in decision-making?

This question is especially pertinent when dealing with small museums, or museums with a very specialized collection. Take the Naval War College Museum for example. The museum is located on a naval base, and visitors must request security clearance 24 hours in advance. This, along with the fact that the museum is located on the NWC campus, somewhat limits its audience. Perhaps by having more community members involved in exhibit development, there would be higher attendance at gallery openings and museum events, but at the end of the day, the museum’s collection is still quite specialized, and the topics presented may simply not appeal to everyone.

What should museums do in situations like this? In AAM’s report Excellence and Equity, the idea of collaborative efforts is a recurring theme–the question with the NWC Museum though is who to collaborate with. Should museums with specialized content collaborate with people who aren’t interested, or with the people who are? I think both. It’s always possible to reach and involve new audiences, and to manipulate exhibits and programs in a way that present the history of an object while also placing it in a larger context that may interest more people. At a place like the Naval War College Museum, this could maybe mean getting beyond visitors with a military interest, and instead presenting something about the prevention of war.

Audience is a huge issue to tackle in one blog post. In the broad scope of things, I think in order to remain sustainable institutions, museums need to understand the people who aren’t that interested in them, understand why, and try to cater, at least occasionally and publicly, to those groups.

For this post, I consulted:
Excellence and Equity (American Association of Museums, 1992).
Ron Crouch, “Rules for a New Demographic Ballgame,” Museum News, June 2004.
Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Thanks also to John Pentangelo
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2 Responses to To Please All? Or To Please Most…

  1. ocothren says:

    To me, the issue of collaboration and connection with audience has strong ties to another audience issue–accessibility. While it’s not perhaps as exciting as thinking of ways to actively collaborate with audience on content and ideas, accessibility is important as it deals with physical access to museums and their content. Over and over, the concept of “universal design”–how to design a museum that is accessible to both the disabled and the able-bodied–came up at my old job and presented many challenges. How can you convey the essence of an artifact or exhibit space to a blind person? How do you write a label that all potential museum visitors–school kids, college educated folks, people with learning disabilities–can understand and learn from? What if your museum is located on an island and requires an invasive security check that involves removing footwear and jewelery and emptying out pockets and walking back and forth between metal detectors–how will the physically handicapped or elderly be able to handle that? I think this concept of universal design is so interconnected with the issues you talk about, Liz, because at its core it is about trying to appeal to the broadest audience and ensure that the largest number of people can engage with and benefit from their museum experience.

  2. eliznerland says:

    I completely agree with what you’re saying about the “universal design” idea and the importance of accessibility for all. To me, it is all interconnected–you need to understand the needs of your audience, be those physical or intellectual. I think these issues are major ones, because at some point or another I would assume that every museum visitor deals with them. I know that at the Minnesota Historical Society, someone told me that their main demographic was mothers who visited with their kids, but they were also the most dissatisfied–labels and exhibits were either too hard for children to conceptualize, or so child-oriented that the adults got nothing out of the exhibit. How do you deal with these issues? It seems impossible to please everyone, but as museum professionals I would also like to think that we want to be able to reach everyone on at least some level…the question is how to reconcile this.

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