In Talking with your visitors – not at them’, Lucy Harland talks about the importance of visitor’s voice and simple ways of asking for visitor feedback and reflections . The examples reflect ways in which one can increase their audience engagement within their institution.
An essential part of good conversation is listening to the other person. If we are only thinking about our own contribution, we lose the chance to hear new opinions and to be challenged in our thinking. We miss out on different perspectives.
In the past, museums conducted a monologue with their visitors. We talked. They listened. We were the authority. Our visitors were expected to consider themselves as the lucky recipients of our wisdom!
But the balance of power has changed. Museums now want and need to listen to our visitors – to enable other voices to be heard and other perspectives to be represented.
Personal stories and points of view, oral histories, traditional stories, reminiscences about the past, different cultural or historical perspectives on our collections… there are many ways in which visitors can open our eyes to new understanding and add richness to our museums by sharing their stories.
There are simple and cheap ways to encourage visitors to talk to us and each other. A blackboard with a question and a supply of chalk is a great way to start a conversation. Using postcards, a pin board or post-it notes does the same job.
The Wellcome Collection https://wellcomecollection.org – in London – displays some of the huge, diverse global collection of objects related to the practice of medicine which was created by Henry Wellcome. In their new Reading Room, visitors are invited to respond to the displays and share their ideas. They can write a ‘prescription’ for anything they would like to cure. They can draw a self-portrait or share a personal story. They can leave their reflections for others to look at and read.
At the Jewish Museum http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk – also in London – visitors are offered blank postcards to answer questions about identity – Where do you belong? Where are you from? Who are you? What do you believe? They can then choose to leave their postcard on display.
At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History https://santacruzmah.org
in California, USA, visitors were asked to put memories in a jar. The result was a beautiful exhibit of personal stories and objects which grew as more visitors added their memories. If you are interested in how a museum can open up a conversation with visitors and encourage them to participate in the life of the museum, there is no better to place to start than looking at Santa Cruz and the work of its director Nina Simon http://www.participatorymuseum.org
If you want to remind older visitors of life before computers and give children something interesting to use, you could use a typewriter and small cards or a long spool of paper as seen here at the UK’s Turner Prize contemporary art exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland in 2015.
However you try it, starting a conversation with visitors can help open up your museums to new ideas, new voices and new ways of thinking. Others have tried it and there are plenty other ideas to inspire you both in museum literature about participation and on the internet. Why not have a go?
Lucy Harland is a museum interpretation consultant working with a range of UK and international clients. Lucy has a particular expertise in exhibition planning and museum text writing and editing. She was formerly a museum curator and a BBC radio producer. Follow her on Twitter.
ReReeti works with museums, galleries and heritage sites across India to plan strategies, design systems and implement programmes to increase audience engagement and institutional/company visibility. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation or to collaborate on an upcoming travelling exhibition.