Museums, who are your fans? And how can you make them your partners?

Recently, I realized I have been guilty of museum favoritism.

Almost every day, I become more aware of the diverse and plentiful cultural offerings in the Washington, D.C. area. Frequently, people ask if I have heard of a particular museum or gallery and I happily say, ‘No, but it’s going on my list.’ This ever-expanding list reminds me that I have barely scratched the proverbial surface of local museum visiting possibility.

Why then—with so many unchecked boxes—do I repeatedly visit (and often write about) the same institutions? Firstly, time and energy are not unlimited (even for someone with my flexible schedule) so I am drawn to what intrigues me most. Ease of access is also a factor that nudges me towards the familiar, a constraint imposed by my poor map-reading and GPS-following skills. But another component is clearly the fact that certain museums’ exhibitions and public programs speak to my personal drives for growth and unique experience.

A few days ago, during a thought-provoking visit to the AMA | Art Museum of the Americas’ latest F Street Gallery exhibition, What We Have Within, I began to appreciate my value as an increasingly dedicated and regular visitor to this particular museum. Chatting with my inspiring guide, Exhibit Coordinator, Fabian Goncalves, I noticed (as I had during my first visit) the compelling interests and values that I share with this institution, namely the importance of telling real stories and giving voice to social concerns. I began to wonder, am I a resource to this and other museums whose mission and values I particularly embrace?

Strategically speaking, how should museums approach and respond to visitors who (for lack of a better word) love what the museum does? Do museums know what they’re ‘selling,’ or better yet, what visitors are ‘buying’? Obviously, the answer depends partly on the type of visitor; people visit museums for numerous reasons and with limitless possible outcomes or takeaways. Visitor differences aside, I want to propose the idea of museum ‘fans,’ and then ask the question, ‘Museums, do you know who your fans are—and why?’

A Google search of ‘museum visitors as fans’ turned up mostly articles relating to museums and sports/popular culture and a few intriguing results for ‘fan museums.’ However, I did find this evaluation case study of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture by evaluation firm, Randi Korn & Associates. The case study identified ‘fans’ as one of the three visitor groups of the museum, using the term to describe the most passionate, enthusiastic group (Randi Korn & Associates, 2012).

Since moving to the US and spending time living with my in-laws, I have been exposed to the fascinating phenomenon of baseball fan culture. I think it’s a wonderful example of the kind of thriving community that can grow from a shared passion, and I now have a new appreciation for the value of professional sports in contributing to community wellbeing and vitality. Fans, it seems, are truly the life and soul of baseball culture, contributing energy and character, and distinctly shaping the experience. Fans often use the phrase ‘our team,’ a linguistic choice that clearly reflects a sense of belonging and stewardship towards the team. I’m not sure exactly how an ‘our museum’ analogy would translate, but it’s an interesting notion. Certainly, understanding and cultivating visitors’ emotional investment in a museum could be a mutually rewarding enterprise.

Many museum membership programs strive to engage their more avid visitors with special opportunities to be involved in the museum’s cultural life. Similarly, crowdfunding projects, visitor-curated or crowdsourced displays, and active social media platforms offer passionate museum visitors the chance to contribute and collaborate. Who are museums attracting with these endeavors? What are participants’ hopes and motivations for participating? And how do these projects fit within the institution’s larger strategy and mission?

Recently, a visitor to the blog from local advertising agency, Brightline Interactive, introduced me to the concept of experiential marketing, which, as I understand it, aims to immerse consumers in a brand through inviting active participation and involvement. Since then, I have been pondering the possible connections between this concept and museum learning and mission engagement. For example, what are the possibilities for active involvement and immersion of ‘fans’ in a museum’s mission and brand?

If we think of fans as institutional resources (much like the collections, staff, and museum building), then what might be their possible roles? Fans may be potentially valuable members of a museum’s social network because they are able to spread a museum or exhibit’s message, raise awareness for issues of concern to the museum, and generally generate attention, for example, on social media (see below).

Although museums may struggle with the practical obstacles of connecting directly with passionate individuals, making the effort to seize small opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate visitors’ exciting connections and shared understandings could be valuable. For example, during my most recent visit to the AMA, my guide, Fabian, expressed his enjoyment of my visit, explaining that these experiences are valuable to him, as he knows they are to me also. This comment made me feel valued and connected to the museum.

As is often the case for me (being an emerging museum professional), this post is largely comprised of questions rather than answers. I sincerely hope that those with greater expertise in marketing, social networks, and museum branding will weigh in with relevant resources, thoughts, and critiques. I am also interested in the question of terminology. Is ‘fan’ an appropriate word here, or does a better option exist? Is the concept valid to begin with?

I wish to propose the following final question as food for thought:

What is the particular value of fans to museums that seek to engage in social work?

A recent post by Zac Stocks on the incluseum really highlighted for me the value of building community networks and creating strong self-sustaining systems of stakeholders when pursuing museum social work. Museums might consider looking to those users and visitors who share their vision in an effort to create enduring foundations for social change. 

What are your favorite cultural institutions and why? What could you contribute to these institutions? … I look forward to continuing my own museum pilgrimage (a term borrowed from Alli Burness), finding many more favorites, and sharing my stories and experiences with you.

 

Reference

Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (2012). An audience research study for a natural history museum: Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://www.randikorn.com/resources/burke-visitor-experience.php

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