We are so pleased that Adam Rozan, one of Museum Hack’s favorite museum professionals, spoke with us about a new and innovative course that he is teaching in the Museum Studies program at Harvard University’s Extension School. Adam is currently the Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum.
MH: Adam, your course sounds really interesting! Let’s start with the title. Can you tell our readers a bit about the premise you had in mind when you conceived it?
AR: The title of the course is: Audience Engagement: How Museums Learned to Love their Visitors. It was meant to be aspirational. I can’t imagine another course at Harvard that has the word “love” in the title!
I’m interested in trends. For instance, what kind of new museums are opening? Why are older, established museums closing? I think about the root causes to some of the answers to these questions. For instance, yes, money is one reason, but often, I think it is something deeper. “Relevance” is a simple way to think about it. I might want to do something, say something, sell something, etc., but if no one is interested in buying, then do I keep doing it as is, or do I need to change…and to what degree am I willing to change?
As a museum professional, I think that it is our responsibility and opportunity to transform all museums into places that better serve their audiences, and in doing so, serve their communities. Museums matter. But what we need now is to transform them into needed centers of community, conversation, life, play, thinking, celebration, and, at times, even mourning.
The title of my course comes from my understanding and belief that like every other industry, if we want this to happen, then museums need to not only appreciate their visitors, but to also love them.
MH: But how? It seems like a simplistic question, but how does your course teach museum professionals to love their visitors?
AR: Love? We start by having the students define what a museum is. Their definitions help us realize that museums need to become the new centers of our communities. Once we realize that, then the conversation switches over to empathy. If we can develop empathy for all of our audiences, then we can learn to love our visitors.
MH: Can you tell us more about the course?
AR: It’s a boot camp on museums without the push-ups! The long weekend that is incorporated as part of the course is called an active learning weekend. It is meant to be highly active and participatory rather than simply lecture-based learning. This provides a really fun and great opportunity for people to immerse themselves into a topic with a group of people and to deeply explore the subject together.
We’re really taking the “active” part of the course to heart and going out into the field to see museums and to witness their practices in order to inform our discussion.
MH: There is definitely a correlation between the active, immersive, and participatory nature of your course and the need for that sort of attitude within museums and their efforts towards audience engagement. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you really believe that this course and the attitudes it champions is particularly relevant and important in the current moment?
AR: To begin with, many museums are working to regain a relevance in their communities partly because there is much more competition for people’s free time in our modern era. While it might not be true for all museums, I think that the vast majority are fighting for survival. Survival mode does not look, nor act, the same for each organization, but as an industry as a whole, we are in survival mode. Out of that crisis emerges the need for “engagement” which carries with it the hope that museums can re-focus on why they do what they do. This sort of moment is a prime time for fresh ideas to be coming into the field.
MH: I think in that same vein of encouraging fresh ideas, your course is structured to be a dialogue and to allow for exploration and conversation. Do you personally feel strongly about one particular perspective? From Adam Rozan’s point-of-view, what is the most important task that museums are facing today?
AR: That’s a great question. I am teaching the type of class that I would want to take. I fundamentally believe that this sort of class is critical for anyone interested in the future of cultural organizations. In that vein, lecturing isn’t actually always constructive to learning. Engaging in discussions, working through ideas, putting ideas into action, and presenting them back to the class – that is a good way to learn and to innovate.
I designed the class to be more like a lab. It is, after all, a class on audience engagement! I’m hoping that everyone leaves the course feeling inspired, more curious than when they came in, and that they leave eager to experiment with some of the ideas developed in the class.
MH: I love how your course is a solid reflection of your practices. What is the main takeaway that you want your students to walk away with?
AR: To fail forward. We work in a truly amazing field; we are fortunate to do the work that we do. This work requires constant reinvention, experimentation, and dreaming. Failing is not often discussed – we’re scared of failing. But that is a shame because how else will people learn? We’re in the business of creating experiences for people, whose tastes and preferences are constantly evolving. We need to experiment and to be willing to fail in order to meet those needs.
Thank you to Adam Rozan for taking the time to speak with Museum Hack’s Michelle Yee.