The changing shape of learning in museums

Art Gallery of Ontario hosted a conversation with two women who have impacted the share of learning in museums in recent years – Wendy Woon, Deputy Director for Education at MoMA, and Anna Cutler, Director of Learning and Research at Tate. They significantly influenced how museums work with practitioners and the public to build dialogues and opportunities to connect art and society and the broader issues society faces today. 

They discussed their roles and approaches as well as how the museum’s role is changing in a time when people are impacted or traumatised by the pandemic, and museums are under more scrutiny in relation to decolonisation. 

The conversation circled around questions about the museum’s role today when communities are as central as objects, and how museums can become more part of their local community, or, as Anna Cutler suggested, at Tate “our local can be international.” They spoke about the importance of providing a civic space – a physical or digital meeting place where people bring their knowledge, feel being heard and acknowledged. 

Among the challenges discussed is “the desire of museum people to tell people”. There is a need to hold back and let others in, to move from telling to an exchange, and rather than getting rid of the expert it is about approaching education as facilitation. 

They acknowledged the challenge of decolonisation when the concept of a museum is a colonial enterprise in itself. Building on Stuart Hall (you can’t decolonise, you need to rethink it) they see an opportunity to rethink and relook at why we do what we do and for whom, and what narratives are not being heard. 

Touching on the power of digital, they recognised that a certain digital saturation and fatigue are setting in, which requires museums to use digital more inventively and better interlink it with analogue experiences. 

Now that their museums are reopening, both see an opportunity to fully understand the impact of this moment in time and if/how art and museums can add value to people’s lives. Anna Cutler wondered whether we can set out with genuine questions we don’t know the answers to. What is really important? What do we have to change and what do we want to change? 

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Immersive exhibitions on the rise?

At the core of museums are exhibitions and it seems that the way exhibitions are made has not essentially changed in its long history – is now the time to re-imagine exhibition making? 

Van Gogh Alive has toured New Zealand and other countries, advertised as the “most visited multi-sensory experience in the world.” It seems to move the blockbuster idea into a new territory and touches on the (controversial) territory of entertainment and focus on income generation. I haven’t had a chance to see it – has any of you? I’d be interested to hear what you think about it. Are immersive exhibitions on the rise?

Geoffrey Marsh, Director of Theatre and Performance at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London writes about The Rise (and Rise?) of Immersive Exhibitions and how over the last fifteen years the V&A has presented a series of successful exhibitions using sound and vision mixed with rich object displays. The best known was ‘David Bowie is’, which toured in 2013-2018 and was seen by over 2 million visitors.

He has also co-written a longer, illustrated paper about the evolution of immersive exhibitions at the V&A, which reports that they attract more diverse audiences, who may not typically visit museums and galleries. The authors suggest that “it seems likely that public sector and trust funding will be increasingly linked to ‘culture for all’ and immersive exhibitions are a potentially powerful tool to achieve this in what is otherwise quite a bare larder”.

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The age of infinite browsing

The premise of this book sounds interesting: Dedicated – The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.

Author Pete Davis believes that a defining characteristic of our generation is to keep our options open as we are stuck in ‘infinite browsing mode’. This culture of restlessness and indecision, he argues, is causing tension in the lives of young people today, wanting to keep options open and yet yearning for the purpose, community and depth that can only come from making deep commitments. 

I haven’t got hold of the book yet, but I’d be interested to read it. It seems we can see the effect in audience data already given tickets are being booked more and more last minute. 

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Image: Michael Fenton on Unsplash

Embracing ageing

As a follow-up to my recent post about the ageing population, this cartoon and story see an obsession with young people among marketers and suggests we finally tap into the aspiration of age

Here is a restaurant that is embracing the ageing society and is living inclusion. 37% of its orders were mistaken, but 99% of its customers were happy. The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders is a pop-up project in Japan where all servers are people living with dementia. It wants to spread awareness and make society more open minded and relaxed about dementia. Highly relevant in light of 35 million dementia patients worldwide, which – according to the WHO – will increase to 115 million by 2050. 

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Good to know: New research into New Zealanders’ cultural participation post-Covid

New research into New Zealanders’ cultural participation in 2020 and future participation in a post-COVID environment has been released by Manatū Taonga the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Undertaken by ColmarBrunton, it looks at current and anticipated future participation, Covid-19 related concerns about participation and new participation behaviours (including digital).

The findings suggest that participation in arts, culture and heritage activities will increase from where it was in post-Covid 2020. While intention data always needs to be read with a grain of salt, it is good news that intended participation is higher than post-Covid 2020 participation for all arts, culture and heritage activities with increases most pronounced for activities which involve visiting a place or going to an event.

There is a clear preference for engaging with arts, culture and heritage in person rather than online, in particular among Māori and Pacific peoples, as well as women. Yet results also indicate that online engagement will continue with respondents typically saying they intend to engage both online and in person.

Still, concern about Covid-19 is the primary barrier to in person visits to arts, culture and heritage places in the next 12 months. Aucklanders (especially those living in South Auckland), people with disabilities, Pacific peoples and Asian peoples were more concerned than average about Covid-19. The research suggests that the most effective measure for encouraging attendance is reassurance that people will be refunded if the event is cancelled. Health-related measures are important to half of New Zealanders, but play a lesser role.

The study goes into participation and engagement by art form and for highlights demographic differences in engagement levels and platform preferences, find the full report here.

The changing age profile of society

The over 65s grow more than 10 times faster than the under 14s

Did you know that by the year 2036, there will be more people over the age of 65 in Aotearoa New Zealand than children under 14? The over 65s will grow more than 10 times faster than the under 14s.

The development is similar in the United States, where there will be more people over 65 than children 17 and under by 2035. And behind Japan, the EU provides one of the most distinctive examples of demographic ageing.

People are living longer than ever before and the age profile of society is rapidly developing – our age pyramid is turning into a skyscraper. 

I was looking into population data for a project recently and thought this is worth sharing as a reminder. I am wondering how this will influence plans of cultural organisation in relation to life-long learning, accessibility, inter-generational understanding and more? And how do we address the needs of this growing audience while not forgetting the needs of young people? Will there be more resistance to change with an older population or will the new older generations (including ourselves 😉 be more open to change? 

Here is more information about ageing population in New Zealand, the EU and the US

The New York Times looked at the world population development and found that a Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications, when toward the middle of this century deaths start to exceed births . While fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow climate change and reduce household burdens for women, it also leads to fewer workers and more retirees. This may require a reconceptualisation of family and nation when the current notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old will be upended.

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The most important metrics you are not tracking (yet)

Are you customer-centric or company-centric?

“Most leaders say they’re customer-centric, but if everything they measure is company-centric, how could that be true?” asks Gene Cornfield in the Harvard Business Review.

Revenue, growth, and similar Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) measure how customers are performing for the organisation, but not necessarily how the organisation is performing for its customers. He suggests CPIs – Customer Performance indicators, and believes that the more an organisation’s attention is focused on outcomes important to customers (CPIs), the better it will perform on outcomes important to the organisation (KPIs). 

Customers (we might call them visitors or audience in the arts) bring a purpose, problem, need, intent, or question — a desired outcome — to every interaction along with expectations for how quickly or easily that outcome will be realised. The most effective approach for identifying them is contextual inquiry, an ethnographic research method speaking with or observing customers in the actual environments in which they think about or try to achieve specific outcomes. Examples of CPIs from the business world are mentioned in the article. 

What would the CPIs be for your audience?

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What audiences really want from theatre

Using neuroscience to understand what makes people enjoy theatre

Following my last post about the effects of theatre on audiences, I came across another interesting study. The National Theatre with the University of Reading (UK) used neuroscience to understand what makes people value, attend and come back to theatre. 

Focusing on actual attenders and demographics when analysing audiences can be deceptive. Demographics do not determine who values theatre, nor does frequency of attendance, especially when looking at annual attendance. The study finds that “only 65% of people who consider theatre a valuable use of their leisure time had attended a play or musical in in last 12 months. While only 50% of people who agree that they would like to go the theatre more often, had been actually been in the last 12 months. Thus, by focussing on those who attach a value to theatre, rather than simply those who attend on an annual basis, we increase the size of population we are considering.”

The research identifies some core values of theatre that are true across all demographics, they are: creative, social, memorable. There are two further groups of values, but they skew to different demographics: 
– Theatre gives perspective and offers learning – this skews younger, higher educated and ethnically more diverse, 
– Escapism and fun – this skews older, less educated and less ethnically diverse

The study also finds that theatre attendance is not as passive as it may seem, the brain is working in different ways while we watch. The ability of theatre to change mood state – to raise morale and give emotional release – is a key influencer on the decision to attend. 

You can watch the recording of a webinar about the study and/or read the report

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The science of live theatre

Does seeing live theatre change us? 

Does seeing live theatre change us? Does it have benefits beyond pure entertainment? 

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tested the effects of attending live theatre through a survey with theatre-goers of three plays. It found that attending plays increased empathy for people depicted in them and changed people’s political attitudes about a variety of issues related to the play. It also changed behaviour – after attending these plays, people donated more to charity, whether or not these charities were related to the show.

All of these effects were associated with how “transported” people felt by the plays. In other words, the more immersed people were in the stories, the stronger the effects were. More about the study in this Psychology Today article

Image: Vlah Dumitru on Unsplash

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The hassle of visiting museums … has increased

Is visiting museums a hassle? Well, for some people the main barriers to visiting are things that can be summarised as the hassle of it – planning, getting there, purchasing tickets and the like.

According to Colleen Dilenschneider of Impacts, these barriers have increased since the pandemic. While the data is from the US and the effect of the pandemic on visitors might be different in different parts of the world, what I found interesting is that barriers to visiting post-pandemic aren’t necessarily new, but the existing ones have increased.

Pandemic or not, as Colleen suggests: “Let’s make sure coming through our doors is as easy as possible.” Read her full article here.

Image: pixpoetry on Unsplash

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Practising art can heal

The Healing Arts – a platform that addresses the growing mental health crisis

From lifting morale and emotional release in theatre, this initiative goes a step further: The Healing Arts is a fundraising platform and an educational programme that addresses the growing mental health crisis exacerbated by Covid-19 including societal and environmental health as part of a WHO series of events. In a week of activations in London, leading artists, architects and front-line workers shared how they know that practicing art can heal. Recordings can still be accessed on the website including a discussion between researchers, practitioners and policy makers about what the verifiable evidence is that art heals. More activation programmes will happen in other cities around the world in 2021 and 2022. As part of the event, Tate Britain raised artist Agnes Denes’ flag “The Future is Fragile, Handle with Care.”


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Setting the Table: service vs. hospitality

I found Setting the Table in my library recently. Written by Danny Meyer, an award-winning restaurant owner in New York City (Union Square Cafe and a range of others including the restaurant and cafes of MoMA), who is passionate about ‘enlightened hospitality’ and ‘being nice to people’. He distinguishes:

“Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes the recipient feel. … It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top.”

Danny Meyer

He attributes his continued success to the way he prioritises his five primary stakeholders in his decision-making:

  1. employees
  2. guests
  3. local community
  4. suppliers
  5. investors. 

The book is a few years old, but his insights from 30 years in hospitality are inspiring as well as entertaining and feel timeless and relevant for any visitor facing organisation, not just restaurants. 

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10 truths about marketing after the pandemic

As the pandemic is challenging the existing rules about customer relationships and building brands, this HBR article suggests 10 new marketing truths.

I found it relevant not just in relation to marketing,  but in a broader approach to building audience relationships and experiences. The headlines are summarised below. 

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An innovative idea for advocacy: political internships

Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, did an internship in a museum. NEMO, the Network of European Museum Organisations, organised this “political internship” to offer a way to get insight into the value of museums and museum work, especially in times of the pandemic. The Children’s Science Centre Muzeiko in Sofia, Bulgaria, was chosen as it offered a good match with the portfolio of the Commissioner. 
What a great idea for advocacy for cultural organisations. 

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Touring re-invented

Organisations are developing innovative ways to keep touring content in times of the pandemic by developing blueprints rather than finished productions or exhibitions. This approach doesn’t require travel and seems less expensive and more environmentally conscious. 

Image: Sven Mieke on Unsplash

Greenwich Dance (UK) commissioned six artists to develop new dance work. The work is packaged as ArtsUnboxed, a virtual blueprint, and sold to venues, festivals and dance organisations. Those purchasing the works will then be able to deliver them using local artists, with a royalty going to the original creatives. 

The second such idea I have come across in recent weeks is Blueprint Packs by the Science Museum (UK). Blueprints for science exhibitions are shared digitally and without objects, partners then adapt them with their own objects and locally relevant stories and show them in their museum. 

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