Wednesday 11 May 2016

WCMT Draft Acquittal: Visitor Experience

The final large chapter for my acquittal for the funding I received from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for my research trip around American museums last year! It struck me that rather than release it all as one big fat PDF I might try posting drafts of sections here, for any feedback that might be forthcoming. The first post looked at visible storage, the second at membership programmes, third focused on digital innovation.

I should emphasise that this really is a *draft* and changes to the final document are inevitable.

1.1 Introduction

I was fortunate on this research trip to spend time at some of the best encyclopedic art museums in the world. The quality and scope of American art collections is startling, and this applies not only in the major tourist destinations (New York, Washington, Los Angeles) but also to many cities whose arts institutions may not be internationally known brand names. In all the centres I visited the scale and quality of the encyclopedic museums was at times overwhelming: I spent an entire day, for example, working my way through the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and still felt like I was rushing through numerous galleries.

The flip side of this largesse was that many of the museums were somewhat repetitive. Galleries are devoted to ancient cultures, to American art history, to major moments in European art history. Art from Asian and indigenous cultures is largely presented as artefact: precious objects from the past, somewhat deadened in the museum context. Decorative art is weighted towards silversmithing and furniture. Intermixing of collections in long-term displays is still relatively rare. 'Blue chip' artists take up a lot of wall space, and after a few cities I found myself ticking off each museum's Ellsworth Kelly room, its Richard Serra sculpture, its Alexander Calder mobile.

I came to appreciate smaller, more tightly focused museums (I acknowledge that my itinerary consciously focused on larger art museums and, had I sought out experimental, contemporary or niche organisations instead, my experience would have been very different) and distinctive displays that spoke to the location I was in. In Baltimore, it was a small room at the BMA with a display of seven elaborate 19th century crazy quilts - an intimate, tactile experience unlike any other I had on my trip. At Mia in Minneapolis it was a room that brought together artworks from across continents and decades, united by an link to textiles, from a Robert Rauschenberg assemblage to a Yinka Shonibare sculpture to a beaded suitcase depicting a courtship story by a Lakota artist, tentatively identified as Ida Claymore.

At the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis I was struck by how closely the museum tracks with the needs and interests of its urban community. In Baltimore again, I was entranced by the store at the American Visionary Art Museum - a cornucopia of gifts, crafts, tchotkes and publications that in its diversity and generosity mirrored the ambitions of the museum. At Brooklyn Museum I was taken by their recently refurbished entrance gallery, which seeks to give the visitor an introduction to the whole museum in one space; at the BMA in Baltimore I saw a similar room under construction, and heard about their plans to open up an adjoining space to create a platform for community discussion.

As I travelled around the States, I read articles almost daily about the newly opened Broad Museum in Los Angeles. The Broad is a privately funded museum that eschews many of the trappings of the conventional art museum, including charged entry, reception desks, venue hire spaces and restaurants. Much was made of their Apple store-inspired approach to visitor hosting.

This section of my report details some of my standout moments of visitor experiences, and draws some conclusions on how museum's framing and retail spaces offer important opportunities to connect visitors to the museum's brand and objectives.

1.2 American Visionary Art Museum and Mia: Inspiring retail experiences

The Dowse's entrance is the hub of the museum: it leads through to the cafe, galleries, venue hire spaces, and hosts the store and the reception desk. Over the past 18 months we have been rethinking our approach to the store space in particular, from seeing it as a retail offer to seeing it as a prime location to connect with visitors and introduce them to The Dowse's brand values: a shift from consumer culture to participatory culture reflecting the wider shift in museum practice.

On my trip around the States I made a point of spending time in as many museum stores as possible. I observed not only stock and display methods, but how the staff interacted with customers.

I took a lot away from how stores like that at the BMA communicate the iconic nature of certain collection objects or areas through their merchandising: a single quilt or painting might be presented as magnets, pencils, notepads, embroidery kits, cards and more. I realised as I visited these stores that not only do they impress upon visitors the importance of certain works through the plethora of product based on them: they also give the visitor a subtle preview/reminder of the museum's displays. By exploring the exhibition and collection-related merchandise, you have an opportunity to recall the things you have seen in the museum, and consider (through making decisions on potential purchases) what you were really attracted to.

The stores also offer an opportunity for visitors to connect with a museum employee. In general, American museum gallery attendants are not encouraged to engage with visitors (see below). In contrast to the often silent (and bored) attendants in the galleries, and ticketing staff who were focused on processing visitors, store staff were chatty and inquisitive, commenting on accents, asking where you were from, asking about your visit, what you'd liked, helping you find something in the store you'd be interested in.

On my trip, two stores really stood out for the way they embodied the museum's brand statements and served as a visitor experience unto themselves: the store Mia in Minneapolis, and the Sideshow Shop, American Visionary Art Museum.

Independently owned, the Sideshow Shop effortlessly embodies the AVAM focus on "an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself." The museum overall demonstrates the same respect towards artists and professional standards of any other museum, but all aspects of its design and presentation speak of visual abundance, pleasure in the act of creating, spontaneity and individuality.

When you purchase an entrance ticket at AVAM you automatically receive a $5 discount chit for the store, which whets your appetite. The store itself is divided into two halves. The first room consists of a overflowing and extremely stimulating array of giftware, tchotkes, jewellery, curiosity pieces and crafts, mingled with AVAM publications and merchandise.. It is a space to explore like a packed archaeological dig, and truly a place where you could find 'something for anyone'. The second half of the store is equally densely stocked, but more restrained, and offers an astounding array of books on outsider, visionary and folk artists, from monographs to exhibition catalogues. The quality of the selection underlines the seriousness with which the museum approaches promoting visionary artists.

I am not a person easily seduced by gewgaws and baubles, but even I found the joyfulness of the Sideshow Store infectious, and spent more there than I did in any other museum. It has become the first thing I tell people about in terms of the museum - not because it undercut the actual art, but because it complemented the art visit so well.

The store at Mia sits at the other end of the taste spectrum. The stock underlines the museum's brand as sophisticated, urbane and high quality. Brand-alignment is obvious and startegic. Part of a recently-renovated entrance way, the store spills out into the foyer space and sits opposite a large wall with pictograms that orient the visitor to the museum's numerous floors.

As stated on the museum's website, the store has very clear messaging and purpose:
Explore The Store at Mia offers a curated assortment of unique products from around the globe that celebrate the quality of the collection, while connecting life and art through the hands of the artist to support the Minneapolis Institute of Art. All proceeds benefit Mia. 
Enjoy an engaging experience where the art comes to life through artisan-crafted products in a range of styles and materials. Learn the stories behind the products while being inspired by the stunning displays.
That second paragraph in particular could easily be adapted to express the goals of any contemporary art installation.

I was particularly struck by Mia's product line relating to its 100th anniversary activities. Some were standard: a line of text-based t-shirts commissioned from American artists, a celebratory book. Others were far less predictable, like a collaboration with Minneapolis business Handsome Cycles to custom-paint a cycle range in designs inspired by iconic works from the collection.

The store also makes prominent use of collaborations and pop-ups. An exhibition about chef Ferran Adria and his restaurant El Bulli was complemented by a partnership with Etsy to promote artisanal linens, tableware, kitchen tools and food products, along with an extensive cookbook pop-up, all promoted under the 100th anniversary banner.

The shopping experience at both these museums was more than just retail. It was an opportunity to learn more about what the museum valued, what they aimed to provide for visitors, and how they perceived themselves.

1.3 American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis: A philosophy of hospitality

At the ASI I spent a day with the director of exhibitions, collections and programmes Scott Pollock, learning about how the organisation fits both into its geographic and cultural communities.

The ASI, comprising the historic Turnblad Mansion and the contemporary Nelson Cultural Center, acts as a gathering place for people to share experiences around themes of culture, migration, the environment and the arts, informed by enduring links to Sweden. Communities of Swedish and Nordic origin remain a core focus - for example, the ASI runs language programmes, offers traditional art workshops, and shows the work of Scandinavian artists.

At the same time the museum services a specific urban setting; an area largely populated by young professionals who have not yet started families and older professionals whose children have left home, and an immediate precinct populated with pre-school providers and elder-care and health-care facilities. Therefore the museum has a focus on programming with intergenerational appeal: their audience for their late night programmes, for example, starts with older adults in the first two hours, and then in the later hours attracts young people who are at the beginning of a night out.

What particularly struck me about my experience of the ASI however was their emphasis upon hospitality, which has a specifically Nordic emphasis (which resonated with New Zealand museum's adoption of the concept of manaakitanga). Hospitality is one of the museum's values, and it extends across their work. The museum cafe, FIKA, has a national reputation: it is named for the Swedish daily break, a social tradition involving coffee and treats that brings people together. The building has leased spaces for local universities and other organisations, bringing different public services into the complex. Regular workshops are run separate from the museum programming, offering another community gathering point.

The emphasis on food and coming together threads through the museum's offer, from its Christmas season displays of decorated tables to its Nordic Table Workshops. Children's language programmes include time for fika. Late night programming is built around music, food and drink.

This emphasis on hospitality unities beautiful buildings and a quirky collections with various community and interest groups. As I spent time in Minneapolis, a highly diverse city that is proud of its waves of immigration, I saw how culture is valued and shared in the city, largely through food and performance.

1.5 Brooklyn Museum and Baltimore Museum of Art: Orienting the new visitor

As noted, encyclopaedic American museums can be huge and draining to visit if you are trying to do it all in one day. Gallery rolls out after gallery, and you move at speed, worrying that you're going to miss something. There is also a bewildering array of time periods, media and cultures. It is little wonder that museums are seen as intimidating or off putting for those who do not feel they have the requisite special knowledge.

The Brooklyn Museum has addressed this possible issue with its Connecting Cultures: A World in Brooklyn exhibition. From their website:
This innovative, cross-cultural installation was developed to create new ways of looking at art by making connections between cultures as well as objects. Located in our first-floor Great Hall, it provides for the first time a dynamic and welcoming introduction to our extensive collections, featuring pieces that represent peoples throughout time and around the world.
Located adjacent to the entry foyer, the exhibition cuts across time, place and culture to offer an overview of the museum's collection, the exhibition spaces and collection areas visitors will encounter, and introduces the museum's focus on encouraging visitors to consider issues of identity. The installation is richly designed, offers text and digital interpretation, and presents an intriguing range of collection objects. It offers both a strong short-visit option, and an ideal opportunity for new visitors to 'practice' visiting the museum. The quality of the installation also prefigures the museum's desire to renovate galleries on other floors.

While still under development at the time I visited, the Imagining Home display in the BMA's new Patricia and Mark Joseph Education Center operates in a similar manner to Brooklyn Museum's Connecting Cultures gallery. Curated on the universal theme of 'home' from the BMA's collection, the exhibition features objects from across the globe and throughout time. Interactive features include soundscapes that immerse visitors in the place objects were made, and videos depicting the stories of individuals and families who lived with a reproduction of one of the exhibition items for a month during the development of the show.

The new center is located in a recently added second entrance to the museum, which includes its store and cafe. Attendants are posted in the gallery during weekends and events, and a reading nook is also located in the space. The room next door to Imagining Home is a modestly-sized venue space, which hosts the monthly 'Open Hours' programme, launched alongside Imagining Home. The programme invites the public to propose and contribute to events in the room, ranging from a recipe swap-meet to a conversation about vacant housing in Baltimore.

The exhibition and venue space are complemented by Outpost, a facilitated 'mobile museum' which moves through the city and works in partnership with other organisations. It contains replicas of works from the BMA's collection and runs activities that lead participants through the same themes of home and identity that the Imagining Home exhibition is built on.

The effort by these two museums to provide a welcoming, accessible and high quality introductory experience for visitors was an inspiring part of my visit. A hidden benefit was the high level of cross-team collaboration that was evident in developing these exhibitions and accompanying offerings.

1.6 The Broad, Los Angeles: A 'new' model of visitor hosting

I consciously timed my visit to the States to take advantage of the newly opened Broad Museum in Los Angeles, which differed strongly from many of the other museums I visited.

The museum showcases the personal collection of Eli and Edthye Broad, and is funded by the couple: therefore, it has no public body stakeholders or governance board to satisfy. The museum is constructed without revenue-generating options such as venue hire or a cafe, has no central reception desk, and has only a small shop operation. It has only two floors of displays and can easily be visited within an hour; it shows American and international art from the past 50 years.

The museum was attracting swathes of media coverage in the lead-up to my visit, with news articles on everything from the building to the collection to the maintenance required to keep the glass facade clean. The museum's digital ticketing and audio guide systems received considerable attention, as did the approach to training gallery attendants. The service at The Broad is modelled on Apple stores, with visitors being served on the spot by roving attendants (to swipe entry tickets or to take payments for purchases) and with the idea of the Genius Bar being followed - that any visitor services staff should be able to answer questions about the museum and the art on display. All staff are equipped with a small iPad to help them answer visitor queries and tell them more about works on displays; they are fully trained on the works on display and receive incentives to demonstrate their knowledge of the collections.

In general, American museums maintain a separation between gallery attendants, whose chief role is to act as a layer of security for the works on display, and visitor services staff, who manage ticketing and take visitor questions. The Broad's approach to visitor staff was seen as singular; a representative media article reported:
it's the VSAs that may particularly grab museum professionals' attention. The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., may be the only other art museum that has attempted to train staffers to fully fulfill the seemingly contradictory functions of keeping the art safe while making viewers feel comfortably at home with it. "This is leading-edge, and it's a very positive thing for the Broad," said Kathleen Brown, principal consultant for Lord Cultural Resources. (Boehm, 2015)
That same article sought out a dissenting view:
Stevan Layne, a veteran security consultant to museums and other cultural sites, is not persuaded that pleasant conversation and detailed knowledge about art should be in gallery attendants' job descriptions. To him, it's a way for museums to cut costs by folding separate security and visitor service functions into one. "I'm opposed to doing that," Layne said. "It can be a distraction from the primary mission" of protecting the art. (Boehm, 2015)
There is an element of labour relations at play here that I do not pretend to fully understand. I also suspect that this division of labour is not seen at smaller museums, galleries or historic houses, where staff have a tendency around the world to pitch in and guard their individual positions less tightly.

I was deeply struck, nonetheless, that this was seen as such a novelty. Not long after I returned from my trip, a similar article appeared in The Dallas Morning News, about a visitor host at the NAsher Sculpture Center, Patricia Ann Jackson. The reporter wrote:

Building an engaged public is one of our chief responsibilities, and we need all the help we can get. 
At the Nasher Sculpture Center, that help comes from an unlikely source, Patricia Ann Jackson, a native Dallasite who has worked as a guard at the museum for the last three years, mostly in the lower-level gallery, where she has gained a devoted following for her considerable charm and perspicacious, if idiosyncratic, commentary. (Lamster 2015)

Lamster noted that this change had been led by guards, not the museum administration. He then reported on changes that have been taking place at the nearby DMA since Maxwell Anderson (now departed) had taken over in 2013:
“When we went free to the public, we changed our philosophy from being a security model to a visitor-focused model,” says Barbee Barber, the museum’s director of staff and visitor experience. 
Barber’s very title, with the telling inclusion of the phrase “visitor experience,” suggests just how ingrained this shift has become. It is a change modeled not just in the guards’ behavior at the DMA, but in their uniforms, which were changed from traditional blue blazers with red ties to a more casual look of khaki pants and polo shirts. “It’s much less intimidating,” says Barber. (Lamster, 2015)
Nearly every staff member at the DMA I spoke to on my visit noted this change in policy, and clearly saw it as one of the most important recent developments at the museum.

As a New Zealand museum director though, I remain surprised and discomfited this division of labour - and the glaring fact that the silent figures in American museum galleries tend to be black, as made painfully obvious in American artist Fred Wilson's 1991 sculpture Guarded View, which consists of four headless black mannequins dressed in the uniforms of leading New York art museums.

Few New Zealand art museums can afford to have visitor attendants stationed in every gallery, and fewer still employ security guards in tandem with their own staff. Visitor staff in New Zealand tend to be encouraged to think of themselves as customer service representatives, art communicators and ambassadors for the institution. Te Papa has set the trend here in recent decades, with their strong focus on training their visitor hosts, and employing a diverse staff in terms of age, ethnicity, language skills and backgrounds, to reflect the diversity of the museum's offerings and its visitors. This was certainly an area where I was proud - and somewhat relieved - to come from Aotearoa New Zealand.

1.7 Conclusion

The ideas and information I took from this aspect of my trip have been the ones that I have most quickly introduced into our daily work at The Dowse.

My observations of museum stores reinforced work we were already doing, and has given us an even stronger framework for our experiments with using our store as a site of engagement with visitors beyond just the retail experience. ASI's emphasis on hospitality fits well with New Zealand culture, especially when thinking about Māori and Pacific communities. While The Dowse is not of a size that warrants an 'introductory' gallery, the spaces at the BMA and Brooklyn Museum were extremely relevant in thinking about how a permanent collection feature could be built into The Dowse's offer.

The larger learning I took from this aspect of my visit was about the need for a museum to communicate its personality through all channels available to it - and to create personable and idiosyncratic experiences that don't necessary require huge budget, but do require a strong sense of what makes your museum stand apart from others.

1.8 Further information

American Crazy Quilts, Baltimore Museum of Art

Room G374, Mia

Mia store

Sideshow Shop, American Visionary Art Museum

American Swedish Institute - Vision, Mission and Values

Connecting Cultures: A world in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum

Imagining Home, Baltimore Museum of Art

Open Hours, Baltimore Museum of Art

Outpost, Baltimore Museum of Art

Rebekah Kirkman, 'Radical Feeling: Katie Bachler talks about how art and activism intersect at the BMA Outpost', City Paper, 3 February 2016

Robin Pogrebin, 'At the Helm of a Philanthropist’s New Los Angeles Museum', New York Times, 12 April 2015

Gideon Brower, 'How The Broad trains its staff may change your experience of the art', The Frame, 17 September 2015

Mike Boehm, 'The Broad doesn't want museum guards between you and the art', Los Angeles Times, 17 September 2015

Mark Lamster, 'At the Nasher, guard perfects the art of friendliness', The Dallas Morning News, 13 November 2015,

Fred Wilson, Guarded View, 1991. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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