I started off this morning reading Debbie Morrison’s excellent post The End of ‘School’ as Usual . . . on her blog online learning insights. The first sentence of her post brought to mind some points I have been thinking about lately. She wrote “Applying business principles to academia at one time was taboo. Mentioning terms such as return on investment (ROI), customer focus,target market, would be met with blank looks – the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome.” This got me to thinking about another interesting discussion of late by Suse Cairns at the Museum Geek blog who posted Are We Engaged Yet . . . that takes up the real nuts and bolts behind the concept of what it means to “engage” in our cultural heritage institutions.
As a museum junkie, I reflected how over the past year or so in traveling across North America, I visited about 100 different cultural heritage venues, mostly museums. In those travels, I stayed in hotels on perhaps 50 evenings. As a result of those hotel stays, I received follow-up email surveys asking me to rate my experience or join a frequent user club. However, I don’t recollect ever receiving a follow-up email from a museum asking me to rate my experience or asking for feedback. I don’t recollect seeing a visitor comment card inside a museum in the past year, but I know they exist. I am certain some museums do ask for feedback like the hotel chains. However, that I did not experience a museum request in the past year likely reflects more the norm.
Having written the above, I do not want to suggest that cultural heritage specialists are not interested in what the public wants or needs from the publicly funded institutions. We discuss this issue a lot. I do think we need to take a different approach toward acquiring that information. Consider the following examples:
- Each fall for the past two years at the C.H. Nash Museum, in our weekly meetings with regular staff and graduate assistants from the University of Memphis, we discuss one chapter from Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences. I really like the way this book with it’s 5-page or so chapters and lots of questions/exercises covers a broad range of topics such as finding your niche as an institution, signage, service, and more – lots of good things to think about. One of my favorite exercises is a simple SWOT type analysis of listing 10 institutional strengths and weaknesses that the museum has some control over. Last year, we took a new approach to this listing activity. Instead of just checking the task off as a weekly book chapter done, we returned in the following weeks to consider how the strengths and weaknesses were addressed by our mission, vision and strategic plan. We decided to return to the list regularly to see how we were doing. Were we living into our strengths? Were we addressing our weaknesses? But in thinking about two blog posts above, I realize we also need to consider what our visitors think are our greatest strengths and weaknesses. We will take up that challenge this fall.
- Flowing from the above, as a staff, we spend a good bit of time discussing visitor wants and needs as they relate to our mission. To that end, in 2011 we conducted an electronic survey of the nearly 2000 subscribers to our monthly e-newsletter, Chucalissa Anoachi. Despite our staff discussions, the survey revealed several key points that we had never considered. First, 60% of the survey respondents wanted the Museum to develop more programming and activities in our 40 acres of exterior space consisting of prehistoric earthworks and wooded areas. Second, by the same percentage, respondents wanted us to deliver more of our Museum content online. Third, 40% of our respondents wanted to have volunteer opportunities they could do from their homes or online. All three of these responses fall well within our institutional mission and are very doable. However, none of the areas received priority attention until after we actually asked and heard directly from our visitors.
- Our Museum is in dire need of updating and revising our 20 – 30-year-old main hall exhibits. Over the past few years, we worked on a few exhibits as skills and resources were available. However, we also knew that we needed to stand back and take a look at the total picture of the main hall project. Based on the success of our e-newsletter survey, as a next step in the upgrade project, we carried out a series of focus groups and interviews with a broad range of our Museum’s constituencies and stakeholders. We were pleasantly surprised at the results. Over the next five years, as we work through the upgrade process, we will have greater confidence in meshing visitor needs and wants with our mission.
There are at least two different approaches to engage the visitor. We can start from our mission and try to sell our vision to the public. Alternatively, we can first seek out the public vision and mesh that vision with our mission. As educators, museum professionals, and cultural heritage specialists, we need to abandon the mindset that “if we build it, they will come” if what we build is not relevant to the needs and wants of the public that we serve.
How do you make your institution relevant to the visitors you serve?