Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Do we like our visitors?

Me at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Before we get to today’s topic, I want to start with a thank you. I’ve received some many notes, emails, DMs, and tweets of support this month. Your responses are so cheering, and I’m thrilled to get them.

I started this month with the metaphor of fitting into big shoes. Those of you who know me in real life might know my love of shoes. So, I’ll end this month with another shoe metaphor, of sorts. When I got those little pings of support, I feel like I could dance. In some ways, though, it was a little selfish. I got the praise, but no one else got to enjoy those good vibes. What I’d like to see is that this digital space becomes a place where we all get a chance to feel those good vibes. I imagine each month as a chance where we can collectively engage on ideas, and where I share this amazing platform with everyone. Think of this being a dance party, where I am happily sharing my dancing shoes. And I must really like you all because I don’t share shoes lightly. :> But, we’ll talk more about how this collective space will unfold next month. Today, let’s finish up on this month’s topic, what I learned during my time as a consultant.

This month, I started with looking at some broad reflection on our field and visitors before looking at some of the great ways that we do participation in our spaces. I also posed a big question: Do we as a field signal that we like our visitors?

I, myself, don’t know the answer. And I was really interested in hearing people’s answers. I want to give a shout out to Bob Beatty, who shared this topic on Twitter and Linkedin. Shares like that are what get these questions to the biggest possible audience. Thanks to his efforts, we had some wonderful feedback. (In subsequent months, I’ll include visitor feedback by name after getting express permission from the writer. But today, I’m not going to attribute these comments, as I am in a bit of a time crunch on my post. I’m on my way to a camping trip without wifi in the Maritimes.)

The big themes from comments could be broken into three broad categories: we think we do; we don’t even think about it, and we don’t. The first set of comments signal something I have noted throughout my career. Most people don’t develop program and spaces with the express hope of failing. We do this work for visitors and people. Our challenge is that we can’t step outside of our frames and beliefs. Our lack of understanding about visitors makes it hard for us to really create visitor-centered projects. The rise in audience evaluation is promising, certainly. But, one respondent remarked that we particularly like audience evaluation when it supports what we already believe. We need to as a field be better about hearing the difficult truths our visitors might share.

Another theme in comments was how much of our field seem immune to visitor feedback. One comment particularly struck me. We see some of our most front line, security, work as being immune to visitor feedback. Also, other people mentioned how cold our spaces are, both temperature and emotionally, and how we persist in that behavior as if our visitors are not customers who need to be treated well. Now, temperature is something we will always have as a challenge due to collection care. But, how many peoples do a good job of explaining why our spaces are cold?

Finally, the majority of comments fell into the idea that we don’t. Most people talked about the ways we maintain inequity through our hierarchical thinking. We see ourselves as better than visitors, when as one colleague says we just read a different book. And, our contempt for visitors is obvious to people. We do this both in our physical spaces but also in the ways staff speaks about visitors in our meetings and our hallways. I am curious if we would want our physicians speaking of us this way. If we wouldn’t want to be discussed this way, should we want our clients to be discussed in this manner? The ways that we communicate internally about visitors, is a signal about how we, as organizations think of our visitors. They are not just people who help us write grants to banks to support us doing what we want to do. They are our partners in keeping and sharing collections and ideas for the greater good for society.

What’s there to do then? Well, this is a hard one. The persistent negativity about visitors isn’t something any one person can solve. I would say that this can’t be something that just one or two departments can fix. Museum education and front of house are often placed in the challenging position of “standing up” for visitors in internal meetings. Frankly, everyone should be standing up for visitors. Without them, we can’t keep our doors open. Everyone should try to put themselves in the place of what is best for our organization, which includes what is best for visitors. Everyone should work hard to speak kindly about visitors. Everyone has to sign on to the social contract that museums are for visitors, and then act accordingly.  Until we agree and act as if visitors are central to our work, we as a field will never accomplish our goal of being equitable, accessible spaces.
Looking forward, Nina will be back sharing more thoughts about her blog next week. After that we’ll spend the latter part of August, we’ll talk a bit about our next few months in this space. I’m basically driving into the wilderness as soon as I finish posting this, but when I come back to society next week, I’ll check comments here, at Twitter (@artlust), and at IG (@_art_lust_).

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