Thursday, August 18, 2011

Supporting Museum Tribes & Fans through Shared Ritual

Many people (Paul Orselli, Linda Norris, Pete Newcurator) in the museum field have written about the question of museum "tribes"--based partly on Seth Godin's book, partly on the longstanding fan culture that pervades our lives through sport, celebrity, and shared experience of mass events. The question is usually, "How can museums cultivate fandom among visitors?" or "What would a museum look like that embraced and supported tribal followings?"

I spent an (early) morning today with the local chapter of Kiwanis that got me thinking about this question again. I was struck by how ritualistic their meeting was--idiosyncratic nametags, a special song to welcome guests, a donation pool in which people offer "sad" or "happy" dollars to commemorate recent events in their lives, a raffle to choose who will create the trivia game for next week. There was a lot of camaraderie among the participants, but it was apparent that the structured ritual was just as important as the friendships to holding the group together.

So often when we talk about fans, we focus on shared affinity. People like the same sports team or band or craft activity, and therefore, form tribes based on that interest. But sometimes we forget how important ritual is to heightening that tribal sense and transforming individual collective fandom into something more communal. It's knowing the cheer as much as it is caring about the team. It's knowing when to stand up and when to clap. Fandom without shared ritual isn't tribalism--it's loneliness.

These tribal rituals, while often fan-driven, are hardly spontaneous. Professional cheerleaders of all kinds lead us through the motions, show us the way to fit in, and model the experience. And that makes me wonder if museum staff members should be starting rituals to help fans get involved.

I realize this may sound like social engineering, but in practice it's often quite charming and lowkey. At the Indianapolis Children's Museum, they have a "closing parade" every day to usher (potentially upset) children and families out the door. There are staff in plush costumes. They hand flags to little kids to wave. I even think there's a goodbye song. This ritual doesn't just leave families with a warm feeling about the museum--it encourages fans to share the experience with each other (as I'm doing with you right now).

Do you have institutional rituals that involve visitors or members?
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