This past summer, Caroline Perkins was on a mission: to comparatively study art museum adult education programs. She was looking for the best ways that museums can “convey art historical content in an engaging manner.” What she found are some profound insights into what works — and doesn’t work — in art museum programming. We have summarized her ideas on what makes an engaging art museum experience.
Funded by an ACC-IAC Creativity & Innovation Fellowship, Caroline shadowed our Museum Hack renegade tour guides during our Metropolitan Museum of Art Unhighlights tours. She also shadowed the Museum of Modern Art’s Gallery Sessions and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s General Highlights tours. She shared her comparative study with us, and we thought her insights on best practices for creating engaging art museum experiences are spot on!
Caroline shadowed three different art museum tours throughout her study. What she found was that even when tours are the same length, the audience, number of art objects, and navigational pathways used can significantly affect the tour experience. The first of these factors – audience – is directly influenced by whether general visitors are aware of, and can afford, the museum’s tour programs.
At MoMA’s Gallery Sessions, Caroline found that many visitors weren’t aware that the tours existed. Gallery Sessions are “drop-in” tours featuring one-hour “impromptu creative exploratory experiences” of specific galleries. Though advertised on the MoMA website, there are no signs or information in the museum to make general visitors aware of this offering.
Caroline found that this lack of advertising forced visitors to have prior knowledge in order to drop in and attend, resulting in tour groups of 8 to 15 people. Many general visitors would listen in to Gallery Sessions that were held while they were on their own explorations of the galleries. After about five minutes, visitors would continue on with their own museum experience rather than joining the Sessions. The result was that Gallery Sessions have small, non-diverse audiences. This can limit visitor engagement during tours and hinder the museum in achieving engagement of diverse audiences, creating a lost opportunity for potential members, and supporters of the museum.
In comparison, Museum Hack Unhighlights Tours are marketed in a variety of ways as “subversive, interactive, engaging tours for people who typically do not enjoy art museums.” This strategy also results in small audience size, but for different reasons. Our Metropolitan Museum of Art Unhighlights tours are marketed as subversive and exclusive, costing $59 for a two-hour tour. This limits our audience to those who can afford it and are interested in our unconventional approach.
Ticket price also affects visitors to the MoMa and the Metropolitan, since there is an admission fee to the museums, but their tours are offered for free. Unlike MoMA, the Metropolitan’s General Highlights tours are offered five to six times per day and marketed to general visitors. These regularly scheduled and advertised tours resulted in twenty-five to forty visitors per tour. Yet this audience size could be too much: there’s simply too many people to offer a more personalized experience of the museum.
Ultimately, Caroline found that the best tours consisted of a small audience of 10 to 15 visitors. Museums are more successful in increasing attendance when tours are marketed to the general public within the museum, but must also balance out the number of attendees with the desire for museum visitors to find personal meaning during their tour experience.
Art: Breadth vs. Depth
Caroline also found that tour structure varied depending on the leader. The result was a competition for breadth or depth, with the best tours balancing both.
At the MoMA Gallery Sessions, some leaders led tours focused on only 2 or 3 objects, while others discussed over 15 art objects within an hour. Comparatively, Museum Hack Unhighlights tours offered comprehensive surveys of 10 to 14 objects within two hours, and the Metropolitan’s General Highlights tours surveyed 7 art objects in one hour.
This creates a tension in experiences, with visitors attending some sessions that go too deep in analysis of a few objects and others that survey too much, too quickly. Both leave audiences lacking the connection and relevance to art objects which they seek. Caroline found that the best tours looked at about 6 objects within a one-hour time period.
The Gallery Sessions were led by various educators, many of whom held Masters or Doctoral degrees in Art History. Yet their vast knowledge base could limit audience engagement — bogging down the art in highly academic terms and too much art historical theory. The same occurred at the Metropolitan’s General Highlights tours, where audiences passively digest facts and contextual points offered by docents.
In Museum Hack tours, many renegade tour guides have experience in theatre and performance art rather than art history. Our tours focus on storytelling and using in-depth critical analysis to supplement the narrative around each work. Caroline found our approach very engaging and intriguing, but noted that it promotes a somewhat passive learning experience since a tension exists in trying to let the audience be part of the analysis while also adhering to the tour schedule.
The best leaders on all three tours were able to deconstruct art historical material and theory in a way that audience members felt comfortable asking questions about the information presented. Being able to ask questions helped the audience to feel engaged with the material and presented opportunities for them to relate their own knowledge of the art.
Navigating the Museum: Pace & Tone
Audience engagement was also affected by the leader’s pace and tone of voice.
As with depth, leaders holding advanced degrees in art history tend to speak in academic jargon or on theories of which a general visitor may be unaware. Some leaders spoke with very little energy or enthusiasm, and were hesitant to include the audience in the creation of their museum experience. This creates an even more passive learning experience, and resulted in some visitors leaving halfway through General Highlights tours of the Metropolitan.
In comparison, Museum Hack tours use a fast paced, energetic tone of voice, and create a far more engaging educational experience for the audience. “The informal language used by the Museum Hack certainly engaged their audience of people who typically do not enjoy the highbrow nature of art museums in general.” Our tour guides spoke in informal, accessible vocabulary — but this informal quality can make audiences question the factual accuracy of the information presented.
“Many of the most successful gallery sessions were ones in which the educator spoke in a very fast paced, energetic manner. Many of the worst tour experiences that I witnessed were ones in which the educator spoke slowly in a dry manner. The tone and pace of speech directly affected the audience’s willingness to engage with the art historical material.”
So What Makes a Good Art Tour?
Throughout Caroline’s study, we noted one main theme: engaging educational art museum programs are a balancing act.
As she determined after 53 separate in-gallery learning experiences, the most successful leaders blend narrative structure, rich contextual information, formal analysis, and deconstruction of art historical theory to help visitors better understand works of art. At the same time, the best tours are accessible — featuring energetic tone of voice and informal language that helps the audience feel comfortable asking questions and offering their own assessments.
“The study also revealed the best operative conditions that construct a positive learning environment. Overall the best tours consisted of a small audience of 10 to 15 visitors, considered about six to nine art objects within a ninety-minute time frame, and provided a structured, efficient navigational pathway through the galleries.”
Caroline’s comparative study is a great example of how we can continue to assess and strengthen existing art museum experiences. In our highly technological and communicative age, museums must blend art, enthusiasm, and fun without losing factual accuracy or educational value. To do so, they must recognize the desire of visitors to craft their own museum experiences in order to immerse themselves in a blend of past and present that informs and inspires their own lives.
Caroline’s insights will help us continue to improve our tour offerings, striving to be ever more engaging and educational while inviting audiences to discover that museums are f***ing awesome.
Want to learn Museum Hack’s techniques for creating engaging, small-group experiences in museum spaces? Find out more about our Audience Development work, or email us to start a conversation about how we can work with your museum.