Wednesday, August 15, 2012

An Introduction to The Small Museum Toolkit: Book 4, Reaching and Responding to the Audience

Carol Bolton Betts, editor for the Illinois Heritage Association, wrote an overview of The Small Museum Toolkit as part of the IHA’s Technical Insert series.  The IHA has graciously allowed The Small Museum Toolkit to share this introduction in seven blog posts during July and August. The posts will help you to get to know about the content of the Toolkit from an outside perspective.

If a museum is well funded, well staffed, well organized, and well managed within its walls, what’s missing? For one thing, an audience. All of the aforementioned qualities should be directed toward serving the museum audience. This book tells in broad terms how a museum can attract and serve its constituents.

Chapter 1 takes on a basic subject: how a museum can let people know about its collections and its programs. Kara Edie stresses that marketing and communication are important parts of a mu­seum’s long-range plan. After identifying a museum’s audience and analyzing its own marketing methods, the staff can build on that knowledge. Edie advises establishing a “brand identity” and using it as the basis for a strategic marketing plan. Advertising via radio, television, and social media is important in making contact with the public, and she describes how to use these outlets eco­nomically. The newly established relationships must be nurtured, Edie says, which can be done through ongoing communication, notably a newsletter. Once the visitors come through the doors and even return for another look, it’s helpful to collect informa­tion about them so a museum can be sure of its strengths and shortcomings. In chapter 2 Stacy Klingler and Conny Graft write about visitor studies and evaluation. They tell of ways to convince staff and board members that this data collection is worthwhile, and they outline ways to assemble such data. They advise zeroing in on a particular project and then defining desired outcomes, finding the target audience, deciding what you hope to learn, and drafting survey questions. A large portion of Klingler and Graft’s chapter is devoted to a helpful discussion of the pros and cons of various means of data collecting, such as surveys, focus groups, and direct observation.

Chapter 3 centers on ways a museum can be a good neighbor through service to its larger audience, the surrounding com­munity. Barbara B. Walden cites the Kirtland Temple, in Kirtland, Ohio, as an example of a small museum that was able to garner support for and from the wider community while using its own re­sources to meet the needs of that community. The temple was the centerpiece of a substantial nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints community. Modern residents of Kirtland viewed the building as a historical remnant that mattered little to them, even though the temple received National Register recognition in 1977 and drew visitors from around the world. After the reputation of temple and town was sullied in the late 1980s due to an unrelated tragedy, staff of the Kirtland Temple worked with townspeople to correct unwarranted negative perceptions of the temple and the neigh­boring community, enabling their building to become a symbol of strength and unity. Walden tells how this amazing turnaround was accomplished.

In chapter 4, Kat Burkhart writes about ways of making museums accessible to all. She addresses the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how small museums can comply. She thoughtfully describes why accessibility is important and how it can relate to a museum’s mission. Burkhart recommends that a museum perform an accessibility audit and notes areas that must be included. Small museums may feel they don’t have the resources to accommodate a diverse audience, but Burkhart shows that they can welcome many, including blind or low-vision visitors and those who are deaf or have some hearing loss. At the end of her chapter, Burkhart offers checklists, references, and other materi­als that will help open the small institution to everyone.

Tamara Hemmerlein writes in chapter 5 about good visitor service. As she says, “It is the interaction between the visitors and the site that creates meaning and makes our sites relevant” (121). Hem­merlein believes that good service depends partly on knowing your visitors, and she mulls over why people choose to visit muse­ums. She concentrates on the ins and outs of visitor service train­ing and provides a checklist for improvements in this endeavor. Two of her textboxes detail both problematic and successful visi­tor scenarios. Hemmerlein asserts that with training and thought, good visitor services will become second nature for everyone in the museum. In chapter 6 Candace Tangorra Matelic writes about new roles for small museums. She notes that museums are trans­forming themselves to become more relevant to their communi­ties, and she tells exactly why such change is desirable. Matelic gives examples of five different history organizations that used community engagement effectively to change their operations in an inspirational manner. She investigates the components of community engagement and supplies a helpful table that lists what it is and is not. Another table supplements her extensive discussion of nine steps toward community engagement.

Adapted from Carol Bolton Betts, “An Introduction to The Small Museum Toolkit,” Illinois Heritage Association, Technical Insert 177 (May-June 2012). As a volunteer, Ms. Betts has done editorial work for the Illinois Heritage Association ( since 1982. She was an editor at the University of Illinois Press for twenty years, working primarily on books about art and architecture, film, women’s history, and subjects related to the history of Illinois. Earlier she served on the staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and taught art history at Villanova University and at California State University–Los Angeles.

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