Visitor-Centered Museums: How We Can Appeal to Our Audiences

Originally posted on Medium, May 11, 2017. 

This week I finished reading this book Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum by Peter Samis and Mimi Michaelson. Peter Samis is the Associate Curator of Interpretation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Mimi Michaelson is an education and museum consultant who received her doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University. It is one of the books I had on my list of books I wanted to read on museum education, and the rest of the books I have on the list can be found here: https://medium.com/@steward.lindsey/books-i-want-to-read-on-museum-education-in-2017-14ed52facb11.

My book review of Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum will touch on the layout of the book while pointing out the main takeaways from the book. In addition to reviewing Samis and Michaelson’s book, I will also discuss my own experiences in creating visitor-centered museums. By describing Samis and Michaelson’s examples of visitor-centered museums and my experiences in creating programs that make museums I worked for more visitor-centered, I reiterate the importance of keeping museum offerings relevant to returning and new visitors.

Samis, Peter and Mimi Michaelson, Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, New York and London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Samis and Michaelson’s Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum is an interesting book that while it does not present a new concept it describes different examples of how museums can create programs and exhibits that are focused on the visitor. The important take away from this book, as museum professionals learn in recent years, is there is not just one way to create a visitor-centered museum. To introduce the concept of the visitor-centered museum, the book was divided into three parts: the introduction, or setting the stage; the case studies; and the conclusion to introduce varieties of visitor-centeredness and change.

One of the most important points Samis and Michaelson introduced in the beginning of the book is if museums do not make changes the museums are not going to survive. Also, both authors pointed out that many transitions in museums have to do with museums reaching out to the community to both visitors and potential visitors in new and authentic ways. Samis and Michaelson described in detail why it is important to consider the visitors. They also described that to be able to consider the visitors change takes leadership, and that change begins with a recognition that something is not working. Then the authors described the contours of change; one of the ways they discussed contours of change was pointing out that prioritizing visitors as essential to the museum’s mission may also lead to empowering the voices of those who have traditionally had most direct contact with them.

The authors provide ten different case studies of museums that had approached creating visitor-centered museums through various programs and exhibits. Each case study presented museums that opened their doors to a wider range of visitors and how this decision to change their approach in reaching their audiences presented internal struggles to reorganize their institutions. A few of the museums working towards being more visitor-centered presented in the book include the Denver Art Museum, Ruhr Museum, Minnesota History Center, Oakland Museum of California, and the Van Abbe Museum. To describe each of the museums’ case studies, the authors used a continuum of approaches that begin and end with institutions not strictly speaking collection based; in between these museums, there are museums of various art and multidisciplinary institutions that are intent on finding ways of making their collections relevant to the public and the final museums on the continuum apply contemporary theory and performance to connect with visitors.

Samis and Michaelson’s goal for the book is to share what we have witnessed and join or provoke ongoing conversation related to how (or even why) museum professionals should prioritize visitors in our institutions. Inside the book, there are pictures and charts printed in color to aid in achieving the book’s goal in describing how museums can be more visitor-centered. Also, each chapter was broken down to key takeaways that summarized what the reader learned to make sure museum professionals can understand what they might be able to do with their own institutions.

Each institution is different from one another, and what we can take away from this book is we can find ways to adapt our programs and events that will bring more visitors in by considering the visitors. The museums I have worked for are, of course, different from one another and present their own experiences with creating visitor-centered museum experiences. For example, when I was completing my required internship hours, while working towards my Master’s degree, at Connecticut’s Old State House I participated in distributing and collecting surveys for a lunch program called Conversations at Noon in which people who work in Hartford can attend monthly discussions on various topics related to Hartford history. Participants also can see inside the Old State House while they are sitting in one of the original rooms former state representatives used especially during the eighteenth century.

Another example is while I was at Connecticut Landmarks Butler-McCook House and Isham-Terry House there were programs created that encouraged visitors to not only participate in program but to also see the historic house museums’ collections.

At the Butler-McCook House, one of the programs it held was the Cultural Cocktail Hour, a monthly program which encouraged adult visitors to see and possibly purchase local artists’ works, listen to live music, and socialize. During the program, the first couple of rooms are opened to participants and they can view the rooms and learn a little bit about the family that lived in the Main Street Hartford house. At the Isham-Terry House, there are a few programs hosted at the house including a Hartford Holiday house tour which is one of the Hartford homes to participate in a mostly self-guided tour of the house while participating in holiday festivities. Currently Connecticut Landmarks is moving forward with improving their tours and programs to make it even more visitor-centered based on the interpretive framework and make sure visitors can make connections to their own interests and understand the people who lived in the houses.

As museum professionals, we make sure our work can help identify who our visitors are and how we can continue to be relevant to visitors and understand the overall needs of our society to bring in new visitors.

Do you think museums are becoming more visitor-centered? How have museums changed over the years? What are your organizations doing to make them more visitor-centered?

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