Should You Preach What They Want To Hear?

The museum community often discusses a variety of ways to bring new and diverse audiences into museums. Many advertise exciting programs and exhibitions through innovative outreach. If audience is lack luster, museums are encouraged to do audience research to identify the problem. However, you should consider that it could be the museum’s content that is the problem.
Does the public want programs that reiterate grade school history? Or are they interested in the past? According to The Presence of the Past, Americans are undoubtedly interested in their past – collecting antiques, telling family stories and making genealogies. This integration of history and “popular history making” requires shared authority between the museum and community. Can you find a place for the community’s past in your museum?
When evaluating your museum the audience should be consulted. Think about:
– Who is our audience? Local, regional, or national?
– Are we community centered?
– What role does the community play in our museum?
– Whose history does the community want to hear?
– How can we combine history and the past?

Excellence and Equity Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, American Association of Museums 1992
The Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen 1998
-“A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” in The Public Historian Vol 28 No. 1, Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. (Dick) Miller, 2006

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2 Responses to Should You Preach What They Want To Hear?

  1. There may be many other reasons that visitors go to museums, not simply to learn history or about the past, but for entertainment, to find a place to interact with people, to have a quiet cup of coffee, to get out of the rain–and many others. How should we reconcile those needs with others?

  2. First, every museum, to the best of its ability, should do audience research and find out what its community needs. If the community needs coffee, entertainment, or a social atmosphere then the museum should work to incorporate and provide those needs. Offering a community center would provide all of these options, but a museum should not forget about educating the public.

    One possibility – if your museum has room, have separate space for dining and socializing, research and study. Exhibits are not threated with coffee and researchers are not interrupted, but visitors can still have the ability to move seamlessly between their lunch and tour.

    What do you think? How have you handled this in your museum?

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