5 Tips for Combating Museum Anxiety

Ashleigh Hibbins - Museum Professional

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Potential visitors avoid museums for several reasons, but it all boils down to one: they don’t think museums are for them.  Ashleigh Hibbins’ blog post, “The Scary Museum: Who’s Afraid to Visit You?”, shared some insights into the driving factor behind this thought:

Despite my reassurances to the contrary, they were worried they didn’t have enough education about art history; that they would do something wrong; that they wouldn’t understand or appreciate what they were viewing; that their personal beliefs would be challenged or offended; that they would feel inadequate and out of place. I began to realize that their reluctance to visit wasn’t based on time, cost, or lack of interest, but rather deeply-held anxieties about who belongs in a museum.

As soon as Ashleigh’s family entered the museum, they realized there was no reason to be anxious.  Yet, their fears are common among many potential museum visitors.

So how can museums invite new audiences in — and alleviate their fears that museums aren’t for them?  How can we change the perception of museums from elitist and irrelevant?

A woman stands in front of great artworks in a gallery

At Museum Hack, we work to change this perception every day.  Our tours are geared toward people who think museums aren’t for them, and focus on inviting everyone to discover that museums are relevant, engaging, and educational spaces where the delights of discovery abound.  Here’s some of our top tips on how museums can alleviate fear and invite new audiences in.

#1:  Stop being the expert. Start being the “smart friend.”

When museums present themselves as all-knowing experts, guests are suddenly in a teacher-student relationship. For some audiences, that is precisely what they want. But for an anxious guest, it transforms the experience into a return to the sixth grade classroom.

Instead of presenting from on high, try to re-envision the guest experience as though it is the chance for them to hang out with a “smart friend.”  Imagine how you would lead a tour of the museum for your friends.  What objects would you show them that you absolutely love?  What questions might they have for you?  How can you change your approach and tone to be more friendly and less authoritative?   The changes don’t have to be big.  Small shifts in language use, general approach, and presentation tone make a world of difference.

#2:  Model the behavior you want from your guests in the experience you create

So often, museums proclaim that they want guests to have opinions about objects.  Yet many museums don’t practice what they preach — instead, audiences are left with informative text or guides who are reluctant to ask questions and get visitors expressing their opinions.  How can we expect guests to have the kind of discussions we desire if we don’t first show them how to do it?

Instead of putting forward an air of neutrality, bring your personality and opinions into your interactions with visitors.  Show them what you love and don’t be afraid to say why you love it.  Find opportunities for you and your guests to evaluate objects, re-imagine object uses or stories, and voice opinions.

Guest presents favorite painting at Met

#3:  Make it passionately personal

If you work at a museum, you obviously love the place, and probably museums in general. Why not say it? What is it about the space that makes you show up every day? What made you love museums in general? By allowing our own love of institution and collection to drive our interactions, we immediately tap into our shared humanity. Plus, people respond to passion. So let it shine!

#4:  Start with entertainment as a means to engagement

“Do Museums Matter?: Key Findings from the Museums R&D Research Collaborative” revealed that only 12% of the general public perceive museums as being educational.  Other studies have revealed similar findings, such as the IMPACTS data on overall satisfaction, which revealed that “educational experience” was only a minor factor in visitors’ evaluations of cultural organizations, while “entertainment experience” counted for one-fifth of their evaluations.  When so few guest are coming to be educated, why not begin from a place of entertainment? 

Museum Hack works to re-position museums as education-through-entertainment, as opposed to a place where one must be serious, studious and educated. In so doing, we disarm anxious visitors and bring in new audiences, inviting them to discover museums as a personal, educational, and fun experience. It is much easier to engage with guests who have relaxed into their visit. 

On a basic level, it gets guests laughing, comfortable, and moving — and fosters an appreciation and interest that opens the doors for visitors to care about the material and bring their own reverence to the table.  After our work with the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, they were inspired to use our approach in a variety of ways, including with school groups:

But, a few days ago, with fifteen fifth graders cross-legged on the floor of Chatham Manor, I considered how to explain a decision by the Virginia State Supreme Court that slaves were not people and could not choose freedom if given the option from their master, a choice Hannah Coalter of Chatham attempted to will to her slaves. I let out my inner Museum Hack-er and drew them in through Coalter’s appearance: “Have you checked out her hair? Really, it’s a bonnet, but I think she should reconsider those ribbons.” Laughter erupted, and instead of a dry conversation about why slavery was bad, we started with a fashion connection, delved into the rights of a person, and ended with a better understanding of the meanings of humanity.

Guests participate in demonstrations of musical instruments

#5:  Find places to bring out-of-museum behavior into the museum

So many guests are terrified that they will break a rule they don’t know about and get yelled at by guards. And, sometimes, with good reason: photograph rules, distances expected from objects, volume levels… these behaviors can seem random, confusing and confining to an uninitiated visitor.

But what behaviors from outside can we invite inside? Can we ask visitors to tweet and Instagram, like the National Gallery of Denmark did? What if we explained rules in colloquial language and offered context so visitors know why the rules are in place?

Ultimately, to grow new audiences, museums must find ways to fight this anxiety, and invite those who believe museums aren’t for them in the door. And we love helping museums do this. Find out about how we can help your museum engage new audiences, or send us an email to find out more about how we can help your institution with audience development.

The Scary Museum: Who’s Afraid to Visit You’” by Ashleigh Hibbins was originally published on The Museumphiles on January 23, 2016.

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