Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Know your Audience, and Yourself

Before embarking on creating an interpretive plan, or as part of the process, it is important to build in audience evaluation. This allows the museum to gain a greater understanding of the sort of themes that interest current visitors and that might potentially interest others.

This can take various forms.  Survey current visitors to assess what aspects of the museum speak to them.  Organizations like AAM and AASLH have audience evaluation programs to help museums, or you can construct your own with the help of a local firm.  Although these programs elicit responses from those who already visit or have an interest in your museum, they can give you a great deal of valuable information as you plan.

Analyzing potential audiences is also worthwhile.  If you do not have much participation from your community, conduct focus groups with local leaders, or one on one interviews asking them what sorts of connection they envision with your museum.  Consider whether some sort of recurring activity or club might suit your mission or interpretation and could meet regularly at and become affiliated with your museum.  Build partnerships with other organizations when possible as this holds the potential to broaden your reach and deepen your impact.

If you have a website (and every museum should), you should utilize this as a way of gathering data.  This might include social networking sites and other vehicles that link your museum with the connected community of cyberspace. Although this chapter does not focus on technology, it is in the best interest of every museum to utilize technology to gather, convey and share information.  

You should not only rely on feedback from audiences about what they want to see your museum talk about and do, but ask them to participate more fully in your process. Familiarize them with your site and what is special about it.  Involve them in your decision-making. Solicit their advice. Better yet, act on and incorporate their ideas.  No one likes it better than when they have a good idea and someone actually makes it a reality.   Although this can be challenging and produce unexpected results it is also a particularly vibrant way to give your museum and its message meaning.

Having said all this, museums must be wary of overextending.  Although organizations in this day and age need to be much more responsive to a public with wide-ranging interests, small museums must play to their strengths.  If you are a small science museum, collecting and interpreting works by local artists may never be on your agenda. A suggestion like this, however, might be just the sort of prompt you need to develop a program or exhibition that links these local artists with scientific themes.  It could be an innovative collaboration in the making.   Then again, it might not.  But, whatever your choice your decision-making process will be better informed knowing who you are talking to and what they want to hear.

Stephen G. Hague is currently the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain Ernest Cook Trust Research Student at Linacre College, University of Oxford, England. His research interests center on architecture, material culture, and social history in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. Previously he worked as executive director of Stenton, a historic house museum in Phila- delphia administered by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He holds a master’s in history from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s from Binghamton University.

Laura C. Keim is curator of Stenton and Wyck, two house museums located in historic Germantown, as well as a lecturer in historic interiors at Philadelphia University. A graduate of the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, she holds a preservation degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s in art history from Smith College. She has published widely on early American material culture and coauthored Stenton’s interpretive plan. 

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