To rethink how the Hempsted Houses might engage visitors differently, we have to be very much aware of what visitors, and potential visitors, might seek in a historic house museum experience.
In 2008, Connecticut Landmarks partnered with Connecticut Humanities and Reach Advisors to gain an initial read on museum visitors, and found that nearly half do not like guided tours. (To read more on that subject, and that study, go to the Reach Advisors’ blog and peruse the category “CT Cultural Consumers.”)
Additionally, in Reach Advisors’ broader work with regular museum goers, as well as more infrequent museum goers, it is clear that guided tours are not the preferred method of experiencing a museum. Given that the Joshua Hempsted House is shared with the public by guided tour, as are the other Connecticut Landmarks properties, clearly a rethinking of the overall interpretation of historic house museums was in order.
Our audience research for the new Hempsted Houses interpretation plan is thus predicated on the hypothesis that guided tours cannot be the default option for experiencing this property, though it can certainly be an option for those who enjoy them. But if not guided tours, then what? Additionally, what about the difficult issues this property presents, and the opportunities to consider social justice issues as they continue to percolate today? And, how can we create a meaningful experience at this property, but do so with limited staffing that still addresses security concerns?
Fortunately, Reach Advisors’ extensive research on museum goers, including history museum visitors (some frequent and some not-so-frequent), gives us a significant advantage going into this research phase. Based on that work, we decided to focus on four primary audience segments and conduct extensive qualitative research to dig deeper and learn more.
- Regular visitors to history museums and historic sites. Although we had a good base of knowledge from previous research, we still had a number of very complex, meaty questions we wanted to ask regular visitors to history museums. We wanted to understand how open they were to being challenged intellectually or philosophically. How open they were to discussing rather difficult issues in a public setting. Finally, we wanted to gain some understanding of different ways they might enjoy a historic house museum . . . beyond a typical guided tour. This is the core audience for many historic house museums, and understanding how they might respond to something different, even unexpected, is crucial for continuing their engagement.
- Elementary School Teachers. There is a lot of competition out there for fewer and fewer planned field trips. What makes a trip to a historic site stand out and desirable? Why would teachers pick a historic house museum over other options? And, when they do, how can we create the most meaningful and fun experiences possible for young children?
- Teens. To turn the historic house museum experience on its head, we turned to one of the most under-served audiences for historic house museums: teenagers. Partnering with Writers Block InK, over two dozen youth are spending their summer thinking about history, slavery, and modern implications not only for their community but for museums. As part of this project, these youth will be given the opportunity to reinterpret the Joshua Hempsted House in a manner of their choosing, and share it with the public. We are curious how they will do so!
- Community. Community members, including families of Writers Block teens, neighbors, regional residents, as well as the panelists from our research on regular visitors are all being invited to attend the teen reinterpretation of the Joshua Hempsted House, and then provide feedback to us on what the teens did and their response to it. In the follow-up feedback, we will also be asking questions about the role of this property, and its complex history, in the community, and what possibilities the community sees for it as well.
All four phases of audience research are crucial building blocks to understanding, and rethinking, this property and other historic house museums. Over the next few weeks you will see many posts about the teens, as they are already at work at the Hempsted Houses property. We’ll describe that project in more detail and share our observations. Other findings will be shared later in the summer and into the fall.
Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors. She will be leading several phases of audience research for this project.