Museums vs. The Couch: How Museums Can Retain Relevance and Visitation

Added to Medium, September 27, 2018

Museums always need to think about and plan how they can stay relevant as society’s expectations change and as technology advances. In previous blog posts, I discussed about relevance and its significance in museums and history. For instance, I wrote about how museums can use the history of food to reach out to audiences. Also, I wrote about a Game of Thrones tour I took at the Met with Museum Hack. I wrote a book review on Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance, and about using the Broadway musical Hamilton to help audiences connect with the nation’s past. This month I recently came across an article that talk about relevance and grabbing the attention of individuals who prefer to stay at home. Colleen Dilenschneider’s “Potential Visitors To Cultural Entities Are Spending More Time On The Couch Instead (DATA UPDATE)” shared data about individuals’ preference to stay at home and that cultural organizations should not be discouraged but rather work on finding ways to engage them.

While I have written about relevance in the past, it continues to be an important topic as new media, technology, events, et cetera, develop and change how people interact with the world around them. I have previously stated in my blog post “Does ‘Hamilton’ use Relevance to Teach Our Nation’s History?”: Relevance is significant especially in museums to understand who our community is and to help individuals feel they can connect to our past in a way that they can relate to. This of course still holds true now as museums and cultural organizations learn ways to attract attention from individuals who would rather stay at home. Dilenschneider’s article discussed about the numerous reasons likely visitors are more inclined to say home and all of them have one thing in common: increased accessibility from the comfort of one’s home.

Technology and the internet has given people ways to gain knowledge by using their computers to look up information they need or would like to learn more about. Individuals are able to binge-watch television shows without having to wait for the stations to re-air episodes. They can shop online for a variety of things especially books, music, food, and clothing. Possibilities for individuals to have everything at their fingertips are limitless. Dilenschneider pointed out that

If there are fewer reasons for people to change out of pajamas in the first place, it makes sense that cultural organizations may have an uphill battle before them. Motivating attendance may be that much harder. Indeed, we see that this is strengthening the “preferring an alternative activity” barrier to attendance.

This may not necessarily represent a failure on the part of cultural organizations…or rock concerts, sporting events, or the wonders of nature. Instead, this may be the consequence of our current, convenience-optimized, super-connected world. Even so, this growing trend impacts the double bottom line of cultural organizations to achieve their missions, and secure funding to continue to achieve those missions in the first place.

Museums and cultural organizations have many challenges when they look for ways to capture visitors’ and potential visitors’ attention then inspire them to engage with the exhibits and programs museums and cultural organizations have to offer. One of the examples is the Three Village Historical Society in East Setauket, New York where I am an Education Committee member.

Founded in 1964, Three Village Historical Society continues to meet its goals to educate the community about local history through events, walking tours, and educational programs. Inside there is an exhibit dedicated to General Washington’s Culper Spy Ring which was an American spy network, mainly made up of members who lived or grew up in East Setauket, that operated during the Revolutionary War. The spies were able to provide Washington information on what the British troops’ plans were to help win the War. A television series was produced by AMC in 2014 called Turn, which is based on the Culper Spy Ring and the Revolutionary War, for four seasons. Turn brought a number of fans to the Three Village Historical Society who wanted to learn more about the Culper Spy Ring. Even after the show ended, fans still come to the site thanks to the show’s accessibility on DVDs and on Netflix.

Another example of getting individuals’ attention and interest is Museum Hack’s themed tours. It was my turn to be on the other side of the visitor-museum relationship, and I shared what I experienced as a visitor. They have a number of different themed tours, and at the time of when I wrote the blog about the Game of Thrones tour I wrote:

I chose the Game of Thrones Mini Tour because I thought it was not a tour that I would expect to find in other places I have visited. Plus, I was interested in seeing how they would tie the show with the pieces displayed at the Met. I also enjoy watching Game of Thrones so I thought it would be a great way to refresh my memory about the series before the new season airs.

Each of the Game of Thrones tours is adjusted based on the tour guide’s knowledge of a piece in the museum itself, and to connect it someway to the HBO series. The main point of the tour was to show both museum lovers and those who are not fans of attending museums how awesome museums are by sharing how individuals interested in the Game of Thrones series can identify and interact with the museum exhibits.

Game of Thrones, which is an HBO series which is an adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, is another show that is both accessible through streaming and DVDs. The last season of the series is premiering next year, and I can see the potential in the Game of Thrones themed tour continuing to gain stay-at-home visitors’ attention and interests even after the last season airs due to the show’s popularity. Even while I was attending graduate school, I knew about the importance of relevance capturing visitors’ interests.

I worked on a project with my classmates and the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. In my blog post I wrote about my experience planning the exhibit:

During my second semester of my first year of graduate school, I took a course on Museum Interpretation in which the major assignment was creating an exhibit at Connecticut Historical Society using food as the theme. My classmates and I were introduced to the project at the beginning of the semester, and my professor assigned books to provide background information on food history; one of the books was Warren Belasco’s Food: The Key Concepts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2008) which served as an introduction to the study of food studies and an essential overview to the increasingly critical field of enquiry. Other books assigned were about food and food preparation in different centuries in America.

These examples show the efforts museums and museum professionals go through to attract visitors of varying participatory levels and interests. All we can do is to continue to adapt with the changing society and learn from each other’s experiences.

If you have read Dilenschneider’s article, what is your reaction to her data? How is your organization maintaining relevance within the community?

Resources:
https://www.colleendilen.com/2018/09/19/potential-visitors-cultural-entities-spending-time-couch-instead-data-update/
http://www.threevillagehistoricalsociety.org/
Does “Hamilton” use Relevance to Teach Our Nation’s History?: https://wp.me/p8J8yQ-K
Museum Hack’s Relevance: Game of Thrones Mini-Tour: https://wp.me/p8J8yQ-bv
How to use Food to Create Relevance in Museums: https://wp.me/p8J8yQ-5d
Book Review: The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon: https://wp.me/p8J8yQ-4Q

 

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