Visitor centered

Been thinking about internal institutional structures and ways to create visitor centered program development processes. My assumption is that relevancy is goal of visitor centered practice, and the key to sustainable museums. To me, that means that visitors 1. see obvious connections between the topic at hand and their own lives, and 2. that topic inspires visitors to express themselves within the context of the exhibit or program.

How, then, are program development processes shaped to discern potential connections, and what do exhibits look like that solicit and reflect authentic visitor voices?

History museums—particularly traditional collections based museums that look to blockbuster exhibits, rentals, and Doris Kearns Goodwin to generate revenue—are pretty good at creating interactives geared toward audience participation. They are even better at incorporating outside advisory boards to contribute to, comment on, and affirm exhibit content. But, outside of a few notable examples, they’re not so good at audience-centered practice. (Would love to be proven wrong.)

What does that even mean? We have to look to art and natural history museums for viable examples. Catherine Evans, for instance, from the Cleveland Museum of Art, has contemplated one institution’s transformation from curatorial-centered to audience-centered practice. From a traditional art-history curatorial background, Evans contemplated the chief problem she found—

For curators trained in traditional museum practices, deconstructing assumptions, such as our expertise is what the visitor wants, has been an ongoing challenge. [Emphasis in the original.]

That’s a warning to those of us who think that our academic interpretations are what visitors want. Nonetheless, the chief problem Evans faced in changing curatorial practice at the CMA was an institutional culture that distinguished between and separated curatorial expertise and educational programming in exhibit development processes. It’s a well-known model: curators wrote text and sprinkled artifacts onto it, designers fabricated, educators created programs, and visitors were not considered. (Fortunately, when I worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, they had ditched that formula and adopted team processes. I was surprised that Evans reported it in use in the early 2000s at her museum.)

The CMA began to move toward visitor-centered exhibit development with a series of temporary exhibits. These exhibit development teams incorporated lessons from visitor studies data on audience behavior in exhibits. Building on the energy of positive results, the CMA turned away from curatorial centered, object and chronology based, exhibits for a major renovation of its core exhibits. Instead of a periodization of Western art, they organized a chronology based on themes of creativity. These themes provided imaginative and provocative entry points for visitors, rather than a trudge through time.

More importantly, with these themes, “curator-selected works of art served as a springboard. Into the mix we folded intuitive, interactive strategies…for pausing the visitor experience, encouraging conversation, and fostering critical thinking.” (156) Curators presented art then invited visitors to engage with it. In various exhibits, the museum invited visitors to tag photographs, to comment on artwork in video feedback kiosks, and even incorporated visitor’s mobile photographs into a photography exhibit.

Staff stressed about the extra resources required to maintain these participatory methods, and some chaffed at the giving over of interpretive space to visitor expressions. Evans felt this, too,

I had to relinquish control of content and information, allow multiple, possibly conflicting perspectives and tolerate some messiness. It was worth it, though: I consistently heard visitors debating the question and saw complex, varied thinking posted on the board. (159)

What does this look like in a Civil War exhibit that is about an international perspective on the Union and the Confederacy? In the end, we want visitors debating and expressing complex, varied, thinking.

Evans’ conclusions challenge the mission of academic-based museums (thinking of NCDNCR’s museums and historic sites that have a sheen of academic purpose.) Visitor centered practice should force a museum to ask,

“Who is the museum for? How do we balance aesthetics and our scholarly/peer reputation with visitor needs and engagement?”

Evans hasn’t a good answer, and that’s fine with me. She only notes that, “negotiating a thoughtful balance within this inherent tension is a continuing dialog.” (158)

My takeaways are,

*Curators and historians need to be willing to relinquish, or at least adapt pedagogical prerogatives to audience needs, discerned through visitor studies research, including front-end and formative evaluations.

*Exhibits should build in scaffolding and invite visitors to make connections between exhibit content and their own lives, and offer a platform for visitors to express those connections within the exhibit (or its digital component.)

*Incorporate visitor studies data at all parts of the exhibit development process.

*Commit to devoting resources to managing and maintaining visitor participation.

See: Evans, Catherine. “The Impact of the Participatory, Visitor-Centered Model on Curatorial Practice.” Journal of Museum Education 39(2): 152-161.

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