In what ways do you think that museums add cultural value to individuals, groups or to society as a whole? Many people report having fond memories of visiting museums – often while traveling. Others have memories of feeling unwelcomed, ‘watched’ by security, stupid, or just plain bored during museum visits. There is no doubt that, within their collections, museums have some amazing objects that are capable of stimulating in visitors incredible flights of fancy, creative inspiration, solemn reverence and insights into the human condition. Yet, it remains a question just how often visitors actually have such experiences – and even less information on how those experiences are amplified within individuals, within social groups, across communities, or fed back into the organization itself so that the museum actually benefits from the experiences of visitors. In my view there is incredible potential that resides in the experiences that people have with the symbolic materials (both artistic and heritage objects) in museum collections. But from what I have seen during more than two decades of conducting audience research in museums, ‘grazing’ (or moving slowly past hundreds, if not thousands, of objects during a visit) remains the dominant behaviour of visitors. It is hard to imagine how looking at objects for 4 to 8 seconds a piece really adds up to meaningful visitor experience. This is especially true when contrasting a general visitor experience to that of someone who has engaged a staff member or volunteer in dialogue – which can easily extend the looking process beyond 15 minutes per object, and activate a variety of ways that visitors can personalize the experience of the object on display.
For over 35 years, I have explored the world of museums – including exhibits, audience research, visitor-based creativity and more. Through the decades of involvement, I have come to believe that museums are strange places. For example, the majority of people who say that they visit museums do so when they travel, and not in the city where they live. Why is it that we use museums to better understand the cultures of people who live in other parts of the world, but do not use them to help us to engage in our own culture(s)? And why is it that relatively few people build strong relationships with local museums? For staff members and volunteers who spend a great deal of time immersed in a single museum, there is a clear awareness that a museums collections can stimulate an infinite number of reflections and discussions – in some ways, this is the very rationale for building a permanent collection. But oddly, the visitors who visit permanent collection exhibits tend to be occasional or tourist visitors – and not frequent visitors, who tend to want to see temporary exhibits (because they feel that they already know the permanent collection). Given this reality, why do museums continue to expand their permanent collections – while building ever-bigger galleries to house these collections – when there is little evidence that these permanent collections contribute in meaningful ways to the cultural well-being of communities? This raises the foundational question of how do museums measure their impacts on individuals and communities, using cultural measures? Not simply the typical numbers-game of counting people who pay their money and go through the turnstyle, but rather something that provides insight into the cultural well-being of individuals and communities. It took a long time for me to realize it, but it is a striking phenomenon to realize that cultural organizations do not have ‘cultural measures of success’. All of them are corporate measures – attendance, revenue, acquisitions, publications, and so on. Why is it that cultural organizations, like museums, do not have ways of identifying the cultural issues and cultural needs within communities and developing their public programming in relationship to them? Why have museums never developed cultural metrics for assessing the impacts of their programmes? Sure, cultural organizations have calculated what they like to claim is the economic impact of their operations – especially through tourism-related activities and expenditures. But such data says nothing about the cultural well-being of individuals or communities. From my perspective, if museums focused enough to create a set of cultural indicators, this could help to redefine how our ‘places of the muses’ respond and contribute to the cultural realities of our increasingly complex, pluralistic, civil, globalized world.