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  • kypine 7:29 pm on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply  

    Should Museum Visitors be Consumers? 

    I think the answer to this question is yes. No, not just yes, but YES! I was extremely surprised by our discussion in class today to hear how negatively people were looking at business models/terminology being applied to museum practices and discussion. I know there are a lot bad ethos that surround the idea of consumerism, but this type of model is inherently user-empowering, especially compared with the traditional museum model. I, as a consumer wield the power of choice when I deal with businesses. I want, or perhaps need a toaster. I go to several stores and choose to purchase a toaster based upon many factors including quality, my interactions with sales service, promises of future assistence if my toaster breaks down, etc. If I am unsatisfied with any of these factors I get to choose not to spend my money there. Because of this choice businesses cater to me. They do research to anticipate my needs, they provide special incentives to get me to buy their toaster, they create new and improved toasters regularly to continue to be competitive for my business. They need my business and the business of thousands of other customers to survive. And if they don’t listen to me and my thousands of other friends, they fail.

    This may seem like an over simplification, but compare this customer-centered business model to how museums function (especially historically). As a visitor to a museum I certainly have the choice to go there or not, and yes, the museum will benefit from my choosing them over another venue. Yet, in a world where museums get an disproportionately large chunk of their operating expenses from unearned (and as I read it, un-consumer driven) funds, my power as a consumer dwindles. Choices in museum programming and content are made not necessarily because of what I want or need, but because of the nebulous mission statement, staff interests, or higher-ranking stakeholder whims. Mission becomes central and consumers are relegated to the position of peripherally important “visitors” (aka aliens, outsiders). The obligatory comment cards in the museum lobby are nothing compared to the millions of dollars of R&D other companies are pouring into understanding and adapting to their consumer’s needs and wants. Sure, museums are engaging in audience research. Great! But why are they engaging in audience research? To fulfill the requirements of a granting agency that is only perhaps marginally related to the actual people that come through the doors? I guess what I am trying to argue is that if the museum does not provide a quality service to their visitors, they don’t pay the same types of consequences that business do and my power as a consumer dwindles. As my power dwindles, the museum’s increases and we see what many people have been arguing about as the hegemony of curator/institutional voice in museums.

    I think museums should think more about their visitors as consumers and appropriate thinking from the business world to inform the efficiency and accountability of the practices. This does not necessarily mean changing everything a museum does to a bottom line. Rather, appropriating business tools to think more concretely about practices, the same way museums and non-profits have been appropriating business world tools like “mission statements” and “vision statements.”

    In some ways I think this appropriation has already happened. Museums are looking more and more at museums as transforming from, to borrow from an article from Stephan Weil we had to read in another class last week, “Being about something to being for somebody” (Here is article)
    He argues (often in contradiction to my arguments above) that museums since the end of world war II have exploded population-wise and that there are not enough resources to sustain them, forcing museums to rely more and more upon what he calls “box office income” and limited support of corporations and granting agencies. This, Weil argues, makes them more dependent upon “consumers” and more interested in what consumers want (as well as a lot of other things!). He mitigates the effect of the “business language,” though, away from potentially troubling “buying and selling” model and more towards a pr angle, which might be easier to swallow in a non-profit setting.

    It seems clear, at the most elementary level, that the greater degree to which a museum must rely for some portion of its support on “box office” income — not merely entrance fees but also the related funds to be derived from shop sales and other auxiliary activities–the greater will be its focus on making itself attractive to visitors. Likewise, the greater the extent to which a museum might seek corporate funding–particularly for its program activities–the more important will be that museum’s ability to assure prospective sponsors that its programs will attract a wide audience…The consequence is that museums almost everywhere have, in essence, shifted from a “selling” mode to a “marketing” one. In the selling mode, their efforts were concentrated on convincing the public to “buy” their traditional offerings. In the marketing mode, their starting point instead is the public’s own needs and interests, and their efforts are concentrated on first trying to discover and then attempting to satisfy those public needs and interests.

    -Stephan E. Weil “From Being about Something to Being For Somebody”

    So, the point I am trying (unfortunately very verbosely) to make is that I think the business perspective put forth in the Groundswell text is extremely valuable to museums in helping them to become consumer/visitor relevant.

    • Jais 12:29 am on April 21, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      I get your point Kylie, and I agree with it to an extent (I’m afraid my idea didn’t get conveyed too well over the phone this morning ^^;;).

      My problem with the idea of visitors as consumers is two-fold, one that’s personal to me, and one that’s more an institutional worry.

      The institutional worry is that if museums focus too closely on what it is the visitors want based on what audience research and the groundswell tell them, that the museums risk losing touch with their own mission and identity in order to give visitors everything they want. I do think that museums should connect with the visitors and the audience, listen to what they have to say, and allow visitors to engage with the institution directly, and they should for both practical ($$$) and ideological (mission-fulfillment) purposes.

      What it comes down to is, if a conflict between what the visitors are saying they want and what the mission of the museum and its workers is, how does that get resolved?

      My own personal objection is just to the idea that people should be identified as consumers first and foremost at all.

      • w h i t n e y 8:49 pm on April 24, 2009 Permalink | Reply

        Museums sere Niche communities to an extent. The visitors are interested in the Museum for what the museum can offer their sense of interest. In this way they are aligned. I don’t feel that the visitor population would take an institution so far from its mission and goals to fundamentally change the content of the institution, just the context.

    • Kelly C. Porter 4:21 am on April 21, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      I think you make a relevant point, Kylie, about all of us breaking out in hives anytime somebody suggests a consumer model for our product (presumably education, or informative/transformative experience), but I think it’s hard not to talk about consumerism without talking about money, and furthermore it’s even harder not to talk about the standard model of free-market capitalism that you deploy in your toaster example. In the best (commercial) case-scenario, your toaster manufacturer does precisely what you suggest: they find out exactly what you want and give you all of this and more at a low cost driven by competition. Yet in the real world it doesn’t always shake down this way. Often you will get a crummy toaster because it was marketed well, or it was on sale, or because you didn’t have time to comparison shop. We must assume that all of these risks are equally present for the museum product if we employ the same model for it. If the chief goal is to make the consumer happy, then we must realize that the easiest means by which to do this are not always the most honest, respectable or educational. In this sense, it is mission and mission alone that dictates what a museum can and cannot sacrifice to please its consumers/visitors.

    • ninaksimon 4:04 pm on April 22, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      One of the museum planners I work with, White Oak, separates people into “visitors” and “customers.” He calls visitors people who show up to look at the exhibits, whereas customers may buy food, educational programs, shows, memberships, etc. It’s always a little weird to me, but I understand him to mean that a customer has a more ongoing, growing relationship with the museum than a visitor, who just shows up once and walks around. From a business model perspective, we want to cultivate customers. But we also want to cultivate them from an experience perspective, because people who “buy in” are more invested in the institution.

      There are real problems with this when you think about arguments for museums to be free and equitable (which I agree with). But treating people like valued customers is always a good thing, no matter how much they spend.

    • Nicole Robert 6:17 pm on April 22, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      This is an interesting discussion! I do think customer service business models are a resource we should draw from as we build our tool kit for a museum that invites both participation and investment from its visitors (or as nina describes, moving those visitors to customers). I have worked in customer service at all levels in several different corporations, and for me the biggest difference between a corporate business model and the museum as non-profit is the point where we determine the cost vs. benefit. For corporations, the intention is to provide just enough service to keep most customers happy, a few customers heavily engaged and even some customers not satisfied. The expense of providing service that pleases all or even a large majority of customers is too great and doesn’t yield enough benefit. The number often used for an acceptable level of customer satisfaction is 60%. Because museums are mission-based, rather than profit-driven, we have the challenge (and the opportunity) of defining our customer experience differently. We have to be really clear what our mission based objective is for visitors, and look at those goals in order to justify the financial investment. In this case, we may decide that having 1% of our visitors act as engaged content contributors is enough; or we may decide that we want 80% of the visitors who attend an exhibit to engage with the exhibit content in some way– the goals that we set will drive the acceptable costs differently than businesses. We need to read all business materials with this difference in mind.

    • w h i t n e y 9:00 pm on April 24, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      Yes. Kylie, I am so glad you made this post.

      I feel as though I would be acting in a state of self righteous reverence if I were to believe that visitors were not customers in both a literal and conceptual sense.

      Museums are institutions. We provide content and services. We promote our content and services. We seek to make them more relevent to the people using them. The idea of seeing visitors as customers and providing them with what they want, and to an extent need, is invaluable to crafting a relevant institution.

      Without this mutual exchange, listening and interacting with the groundswell, our relationship with visitors become transactional and in essence prove to be more along the lines of a traditional business model.

      Its interesting that traditional models for both Museums and business are beginning to fail. Formerly it was expected that people wanted to come see what we had to offer because we were the authority. PEople wanted to buy our product because they had no other option. People now ahve more options than they know what to o with. They can choose NOT to go. They can choose NOT to buy.

  • kypine 7:49 pm on April 13, 2009 Permalink | Reply  

    Social Technolgies in Museums w/o the Technology 

    I think it is an important and inevitable fact that musuems will need to enter what our text calls the “Groundswell.” Post-modern, post-colonial, and revisionist (and post-revisionist) theories in academia that call for a re-evaluation of truth and scholarship are affecting and will continue to affect the way museums as educational institutions do things. I think new web-based technologies will facillitate this paradigm shift.

    But I’ve been pondering today how museums can build off of these new technologies and ways of thinking and use them for improving visitor experience for those for whom the web does not exist within their realm of conciousness or interest. In my limited museum experience, I have found a population of older people who cannot or do not want to engage in newer technological forms. There were different levels within this population, from completely computer illiterate to those that could use it, but chose not to. How can museums use the principles espoused by 2.0 technologies to reach this population of non-web participants in the bastion of traditional museum practices: the physical exhibit?

    I think our experiments started to address this type of 2.0-minded, phyiscal experience, but from our conversations they seemed to be very programmatic versus being spawned by the exhibit construction/design itself. This could totally be because of time/planning/facillities restraints, but I’m wondering if its something more than that, if its even possible to create that type of an experience without a monitor/moderator inside the exhibit.

    I think the biggest problem I’m having is that I’m not sure what this would look like if it were intentionally built into an exhibit. Would it be a table, courtroom, tv studio, type place where the social cues in the environmental setting promoted discourse. Web-based experiences have the advantage of a pre-set environment, where people know they are going to a blog and that conversations are welcomed there. Physical exhibits have don’t have that same history. If I was in a history museum and created a courtroom area and had instructions telling visitors to debate a specific issue (women’s suffrage for example) how could I create this experience without what the type of “bs” question cues, or encourage people to even engage with the object without having a person standing there modelling the behaviour?

    One of the great things about utilizing web-based social technologies is that they are inexpensive and often free. This seems to be a barrier to including these types of experiences in physical spaces, either imbedding expensive electronics to mimic a web-based experience or hiring staff to promote/facillitate/maintain(!) activities. Are there low cost ways of converting these theories into physical experiences?

    I guess my real question is, has anyone seen a really good example of 2.0 principles put into action in a physical exhibit space? How can we make it happen in a usable, relevant and low-cost fashion?

    • w h i t n e y 12:49 am on April 14, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      I’ve seen them work a lot in exhibits, but like Nina mentioned in class a while back, they were often in “art” settings. Though working with designers/artists isn’t a bad way to go. Check out the NYT article on Art Installations in Kids/Science museums. Many new technologies being used in Art research can be applied to web 2.0 and exhibitions. There are works of art that serve as excellent examples of this, just check out some of the research projects done by local artist and UW professor James Coupe. If partnerships are available with artists it can help with finding funding as well.

    • emilbeck 5:47 am on April 16, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      I think something as simple as allowing visitors to write down their reactions or perceptions about objects/ideas/themes, and then posting those somewhere for other visitors to read and comment on is an example. Computers are not mandatory for social interaction, but we’re learning and discovering new possibilities because of them.

      BTW, I think I understand what you’re saying about what kinds of interactions museum want to have with their visitors in terms of the mission. It seems like you’re really getting into Groundswell and the different methods available for institutions, ie, “Should we promote creation or critique? Should we let visitors choose favorite objects or are they more likely to just read our blog?” Am I understanding what you’re getting at? If so, I think that’s the next step for sure. Making the decision about where to take that interaction is critical, and it will be different for every institution.

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