Engaging Our Audiences: Museums Then & Now

Written by Rob Hassler

In our Issues In Museums class, we were each given the opportunity to focus on an institution in Philadelphia, and create a new program that would engage the surrounding community. As I have touched upon in my previous posts, I decided to choose the Philadelphia Museum of Art as my host institution, and decided to create a Behind-the-Scenes program. My program set out to do the following: 

The Behind-the-Scenes program seeks to create long-lasting relationships with visitors from the community through a behind- the-scenes tour that will promote better awareness in regards to museum object preservation, conservation, and research. As one of the largest museums in the country, and one of the most prominent, it is the Museum’s goal to create an open environment in which people of the Philadelphia community can feel as if the museum is theirs. By creating a behind-the-scenes experience that invites guests to see what the Museum does behind closed doors and on a daily basis, the program will not only promote a stronger awareness of what all takes place in a museum, but also establish a genuine excitement that will promote visitors to become members and feel as if they are a part of the Museum itself.”

 When Paul Sachs conducted his now famous “museum course” in the 1920’s that helped shaped some of the most well-respected museum leaders and visionaries of their time, it may be safe to assume that the future he imagined for museums might look quite different then it does today. Then, the museum “scholar” or “connoisseur” were those who held the esteemed knowledge and privilege of giving visitors all they needed to know about making their way through the art world. To be a true museum visitor, one needed to be educated. Today, the relationship between museum and their visitor looks entirely different. Although museum professionals and curators still take the lead, the way in which museums engage their audiences has begun to change.  

In our class, some of the main objectives were to understand and utilize new ways by which museums can engage their communities and visitors. Rather than look at our visitors as monetary transactions, the question became how can we as museum professionals create living and breathing relationships with our audiences. In order to do this, we worked with unique ideas and tools that could help better establish these relationships we were looking for. For example, in order to understand the objectives of my program and what would be necessary for its success, I created and designed a logic model, seen here:

A second tool that I was able to utilize, and have written more extensively about in a previous post, is the use of PolicyMapgeographic information system (GIS) lets us visualize, question, analyze, interpret, and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns, and trends. For example, The following map shows the same area, with the same structure of the darkest area standing for the highest population, except that this map shows the population of ages 18-34:

In a pressing economy that offers many forms of entertainment, museums will need to create and utilize methods that better engage potential visitors. Rather than see visitors as dollar signs that could potentially keep your museum doors open, museums must strive to build relationships that better understand visitors wants and needs.