Over the last six months, 119 people have taken part in our wide ranging audience consultation on subjects ranging from exhibitions to websites to learning. Rhiannon Green and I have been leading on this process, which has already made real changes to the museum – and there is more to come.
Current audience research tells us that a large proportian of our current visitors are from a design background. The new Design Museum aims to broaden its appeal. This is part of our core mission that ‘everyone understands the value of design’. So how do we become a museum for everyone? We are consulting with a range of groups, from those who currently visit to those who are less likely to. We are talking to London exhibition visitors and families to understand their needs better and with teachers of design and design professionals to look at how the museum can improve what it offers them. People have different reasons for taking part. One person commented “I am particularly interested in how you communicate design to a wider public – people who aren’t necessarily designers or design students, because I think that is incredibly important and interesting.”
Rhiannon and I have been working closely with colleagues whose work is being consulted on to plan the sessions. We are fortunate to have a supportive guide in all this, our evaluation consultant Annabel Jackson reminds us that we must ask meaningful questions about things that can be changed.
What the audience panels are saying
We are constantly encouraged to change our point of view in these sessions. For example, visitors don’t see the work of the museum by departments, so when asked a question related to learning, people will also talk about exhibition programming and visitor experience. Audience panels have been telling us about how they want to be able to touch objects, different people want different levels of information when viewing exhibitions and we’ve looked at what makes a good visit to a museum.
The biggest visible change resulting from these sessions will be the redisplay of the permanent collection. We’ve said goodbye to Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things to open the way for an experimental redisplay that promotes visitor engagement. The Collection Lab opens this autumn at the museum and will test ideas for making the permanent collection more accessible in response to the audience panel feedback.
Learning from other visitor researchers
Looking at the work of other cultural organisations is a support and inspiration in this. In March we presented a poster session to peers about the consultation at this year’s Visitor Studies Group Conference. It was a welcome chance for us to connect with peers doing similar work.
The conference had a great line up. We heard from colleagues in institutions including the SS Great Britain, the Science Museum, Chester Zoo and the Glasgow Museums. Mark O’Neill from Glasgow Life gave a rousing opening speech about Museums Change Lives chiming with the Museums Association campaign. He described how visitor studies can be used to set targets and measure the success of this work.
It was fascinating to hear how organisations encourage the use of visitor research within their institution. This is something we are grappling with now, how to make sure that staff across the museum find out about and act upon audience panel feedback. We had some great tips from the Science Museum. Amelia Robinson recommended selecting your top three learning points you want staff to hear, using neutral language and highlighting successes. Feedback from panels is already making changes to the museum in the run up to opening and feeding into to the plan for the new museum. We’ll update you in the coming months about what the audience panels are telling us. Watch this space.