What’s next for museums?

(Above image: OSU Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning)

Andrew McIntyre, a director at strategic research consultancy firm Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, on how to redefine the role of museums in the 21st century.

Andrew McIntyre

As a result of our work with organisations, and following a major strategic study, we have produced a new evaluation model at MHM called the Spectrum of Audience Engagement.

The model (see below) is a policy matrix, and maps how museums might choose to define their role and purpose in relation to their audience, factoring in their core beliefs and values around how they seek public engagement. It’s a diagrammatic representation of the evolution of museums policy and strategy over the past 30 years, looking ahead to how it could evolve over the next three decades.

The Spectrum of Audience Engagement model unifies seminal ideas first brought to light by thought leaders in the sector such as Nina Simon (author of The Participatory Museum, a book for museum directors) and academic John Falk (co-director of the Institute of Learning Innovation, Oregon, and founding director of the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning).

Faulk’s research looks at learning in free-choice settings, with a particular focus on museums and ecotourism venues. During our own research, we also considered ideas mooted by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a global network of historic sites, museums and memory initiatives. We combined its theories with our own research and experience around the evolution of museums.

Click to enlarge:

Spectrum Final-1As you can see from the illustration above, the Spectrum of Audience Engagement is immediately relevant, relatable and engaging to anyone wrestling with the future of their museum. What’s more, with a few tweaks, it’s relevant for any arts institution. We found that it has given several of our clients a map with which to navigate new terrain. Crucially, it asks: what role should a museum play in society?

  • Are museums storehouses of knowledge?
  • Centres for learning?
  • Portals to an amazing world?
  • Community builders?
  • Or platforms for ideas and social justice?

 

The Spectrum of Audience Engagement and the debate it generates informs vision, strategy, design and brand. While it was initially a product of the root- and-branch review of the Western Australian Museum, when the museum reimagined its role in 21st century society as part of a AUD428m (€310.6m) redevelopment, we find that it’s just as applicable to the entire sector, regardless of capital investment. The model is already being used to inform museum managers in Sweden, Denmark and the UK.

The powerful resonance of the model comes from triangulating the perspectives of museums staff (from every department and role) with those of stakeholders and funders, visitors, and – crucially – non-visitors. The model provides a common language and a shared plateau upon which we can map our own organisation’s vision, values, policies, collections, programmes, visitors, potential visitors, communications and brand. While you may plot your current and future ‘epicentre’ in one of the Spectrum’s five modes, in reality every institution will have a nuanced and necessary spread across all five areas.

Look at the model and ask yourself these questions:

  • Where are you now and where would you like to be?
  • Where are you currently perceived to be and where would you like to be perceived to be?
  • Where is the missing audience and how might you attract them?
  • What changes do you need to make to your offer and your brand to achieve these shifts?

 

By engaging in this discussion across the organisation you can become skilled at facilitating this process, allowing the voices of curators, educators and audiences to be heard so that the result is strategic, rather than the product of a quick-fix marketing campaign.

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