Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Museums?

Knowing that our Connecticut Cultural Consumers panelists were just that, cultural consumers who enjoy museums, we decided to kick off the panel with a direct question:  why museums?  They could fill their leisure time with a myriad of other activities.  What drives them to choose museums?  

The results were heartening.  As Diane put it:

“Museums are like books once can browse thru according to interest or curiosity. New discoveries might appear at any point. They provide variety. In an unstructured experience, the restless or bored can move on. They excite & satisfy curiosity.  All objects, place & people have stories. Everyone loves stories. Museums are filled with those stories. I like the museums that let me ‘hear’ the stories, add my individual imagination, experiences & reflections, have fun & better understand myself, others & the world.”

These individuals often cited that same curiosity that Diane mentions, and most simply loved to learn, feeling that learning was a fun or enjoyable activity that was also extremely satisfying to the heart, mind, and soul. 

Additionally, the panelists enjoyed how museums provide insight into the lives of others, whether people of the past or people of other customs and cultures today.  There was an extremely strong sense of empathy among these panelists, trying to understand the lives of others and how our society ticks or evolved to tick the way it does. 

Although the panelists didn’t explicitly talk about the idea of authenticity, the idea of it permeated the responses of many.  They generally felt that museums provided experiences that could not be found anywhere else.  A few weeks later, having pored over their responses to several questions, I returned to this theme and asked them directly about one facet of authenticity that came up over and over:  original objects.  Why were original objects so important to them?  What difference did they really make to the experience? 

For most of these respondents, original objects represent truth and authenticity.  They also helped them connect emotionally with individuals from the past and the stories they had to share.  Once again, Diane spoke eloquently on this:

“In a museum, the authentic enables us to connect in a visceral or spiritual sense with the past. These experiences enhance the learning experience but they also provide an emotional understanding & connection that goes deeper & sometimes becomes part of who I am.”

Or, to put it another way, the objects have what I call cooties.  It is the idea that an object can become infected with, well, cooties of some sort, and then pass those cooties to others.  It is what makes Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk different than any other old writing desk, because Thomas Jefferson infected it with an essence that sets it apart.  It includes the essential qualities of authenticity, in that an object has to be the authentic object for it to apply, but it adds in an intangible and much more visceral, emotional response.  (I wrote about this concept at length for the Reach Advisors’ blog.)  

And for these panelists, that mixture of emotional connection that they felt with individuals from the past was a crucial part of a museum experience . . . but so was informational content.  The best museum experiences offered both, as the informational content provided depth and context and the stories and objects provided the emotional connection.

But there was more.  Interestingly, just like the students we worked with over the summer, the majority of our panelists wanted to retain control and autonomy over their museum visits, and they didn’t want to be forced into experiences they did not care for.  For some, this meant guided tours, for others it meant first-person interpretation, and for some it meant excessively hands-on experiences (which were largely viewed as completely appropriate for children).  They wanted choice.  And overall they had no consensus on what made for the best interpretive experience as they all had individual preferences.  Thus, the real consensus could be summed up as “don’t force me into anything and give me lots of options, please.” 

We must be mindful, however, that these panelists are representative of our most avid museum goers.  And while they are very similar to the broader public in their desire for control and choice, they also differed from casual visitors to museums, as well as non-visitors, in their visitation, their comfort in, and their ability to navigate museums.  They also had given much more thought to how a museum does what it does and, as we will begin to see in our next post, why history specifically is important. 

We’d love to hear what you think!  To comment, click below where it says how many individuals have commented on this post (e.g., “no comments,” “1 comment,” etc.).

Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  She is leading several phases of audience research for this project.

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