Thursday 23 June 2016

Final report: visitor experience in American art museums

The day has finally come - I've submitted my report on my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust-supported trip late last year around art museums in seven different American states.

I've called the report Getting closer, looking deeper, coming back sooner: The visitor experience in American art museums, mostly because I found myself ready to PDF up my long-laboured-over document and realised I'd never considered a title for it and needed something quickly.

Below are the preface, areas of focus, and bullet-point conclusions from my research trip for context. You can also download the full report (49 pages) 

If the museum is to flourish in the 21st century, it cannot afford to be solely a place of retreat from society. It must stimulate, provoke and engage, as well as offering a place for contemplation or consolation. It must be a place in which we can share in a commonwealth of ideas. (Serota, 2015)
Since the 1970s the stereotype of the museum being a starchily exclusive place for the quiet contemplation of rarities by those with the educational and social advantages to appreciate the experience has been steadily challenged, not least by people working within the sector.

In New Zealand, a wave of new galleries in regional cities (the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 1970; The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, 1971; the Manawatu Art Gallery, Palmerston North, 1977) explicitly set out to make the best of New Zealand's cultural production available to local constituents. An account of the opening of the Manawatu Art Gallery began:
People contributed [to a fundraising drive] because they knew the gallery would not be another city monument to an elitist arts society. Luit Bieringa has deliberately tried to make the gallery as accessible as possible to all the people of the Manawatu, whether their interest be in functional pottery or conceptual art. (Spill, 1977
Over the course of the 20th century, museums reoriented from a focus on collecting and categorisation to a focus on public service by way of education. This shift saw the visitor grow in prominence in the museum's view of its own operation. Over the past two decades, the visitor has shifted again, now to the centre of the museum's operation. Museums are increasingly seen as social spaces, and today's greatest innovations in museum operations are inspired by the social and economic changes intricately entwined with the rise of the internet.

The GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector has avidly adopted the affordances of the internet to find new ways - from social media channels to podcasts to releasing 3D scans of collection items - of connecting the public with their offerings, and to enlarge the voice of individuals within the museum. I count myself fortunate both to have come of professional age in this part of our sector, and to have the opportunity through this research trip to explore some of the world's most vibrantly innovative museums, and better understand how they strive to serve the audiences today, and plan for those of tomorrow.

Areas of focus

My proposal for WCMT funding focused on researching four areas of museum operation:
  • Connecting with visitors through digital technology 
  • Visible storage displays 
  • New models of membership programmes 
  • Outreach programmes serving people on the autism spectrum and people with dementia, their families and caregivers 
Due to several staff not being available at the time I was visiting, or staff turnover at institutions, I was not able to conduct a great deal of research into the outreach programmes I had identified in my original plan. I met with several educators during my visit, but learned little beyond what I already knew from reading online resources.

However, as I travelled, I found myself focusing a great deal on three aspects of the visitor experience that I had not expected to study closely: exhibition spaces specifically designed to introduce new visitors to the museum's collections and exhibitions, such as those recently created at the Brooklyn Museum and in development at the time of my visit at the Baltimore Museum of Art the museum store, as a site for preparing for and reflecting on the museum visit the role of visitor hosts in American museums compared to their New Zealand equivalents.

As a result I have not included a section on outreach programmes in this report, but have written up my observations on key visitor experience trends in a fourth chapter.

Quickfire conclusions

Each of the four focus areas has its own set of conclusions. Here are the highly summarised points from these:

Digital innovation 

  • Leading museums are focusing on developing 'eyes-up' experiences that encourage closer looking, questioning, and further discovery after the physical visit (Cooper Hewitt and Brooklyn Museum)
  • Museums are using digital projects as part of their overall branding efforts (Cooper Hewitt, DMA, Brooklyn Museum, media stories on opening of Los Angeles' The Broad and SFMOMA in San Francisco) 
  • External funding focused on digitally-enhanced visitor experience at individual institutions may be discouraging collaborative development, and projects focused on online users of museums (Bloomberg Philanthropy) 
  • There is a danger that digital brands may become disassociated from the physical visiting experience (Walker Art Center) 

Open storage 

  • Open storage initiatives continue to offer an more 'free range' and exploratory experience for visitors, compared to modernist exhibition design, and also assure visitors that not all the collection is ‘locked away’ 
  • Some open storage displays are becoming tired, and feel static (Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum) 
  • There may be lessons for digital innovation projects fuelled by external funding in the model that seems to have been established by the Henry Luce Foundation grants for visible storage (significant initial investment and then dwindling ongoing attention/funding) 
  • Digital projects are offering alternative ways to blend digitised collections with the physical visit (Cooper Hewitt's Immersion Room) 
  • New 'orientation' galleries with mixed density displays may offer a more engaging option for contemporary audiences (Brooklyn Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art)  

Membership programmes 

  • Free entry-level membership options are being offered in tiered membership programmes to encourage traditionally non-visiting audiences to attend museums, and to increase repeat visitation (DMA and MIA Minneapolis) 
  • 'Free' membership is often an exchange of the visitor's data for this access; this data can be used in many ways, from better understanding audience demographics to targeting retail promotions 
  • The introduction of free membership programmes accompanies a revolution in the understanding of the visitor host role (DMA) 
  • Collection of significant amounts of data from our visitors creates new ethical obligations for museums over how this data is collected, stored and used 

Visitor experience 

  • Major art museums around the United States have astounding collections, but can feel repetitive when visited in quick succession. 
  • Even small displays that buck this trend for can convey a strong and individual sense of place (BMA)
  • Museum stores can play a significant role in communicating the vision and personality of a museum (American Visionary Art Museum, Mia) 
  • Large museums can induct new visitors and help them to engage with large collections through thematically-curated, cross-collection introductory galleries (Brooklyn Museum, BMA) 
  • Smaller museums can distinguish themselves by cultivating distinctive personalities and ways of relating to people (American Visionary Art Museum, ASI)

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