How to Fall Back in Love with Your Museum (Case Study: Heritage Museums & Gardens)

Museum Hack - Renegade Tours

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In historic Sandwich, Massachusetts, lies one of the most diverse collections we’ve ever encountered.  Heritage Museums & Gardens (“HMG”) holds a vast amount of treasures in their collection: ranging from American Folk Art and a vintage carousel to thousands of rhododendrons, antique automobiles, a windmill built in 1800, and a labyrinth designed by Marty Cain!  With this much to offer, HMG attracts a diverse range of visitors and has many opportunities for successful visitor engagement.

But the HMG team had run into a problem: their super-eclectic collections left docents struggling to meaningfully engage with guests.  Docents assigned to areas that they did not personally find interesting struggled to convey excitement and meaning to guests when answering questions or leading tours.  Heritage Museums & Gardens wanted to ensure that their docents could work better as a team to connect with visitors and their collections, so they called Museum Hack!

Kate, Dustin, Zak, & Kelly with laptops on carousel
Kate, Dustin, Zak, & Kelly hard at work on researching carousels!

Four of our VIP Guides stepped up to the challenge.  Dustin, Kate, Kelly, and Zak traveled to Heritage Museums & Gardens ready to help docents connect with the museum’s collections and find lots of new, exciting stories to share with visitors.  We knew from the start that the challenge wasn’t the docents — they were great — it was equipping this team with the right tools and modes of engagement to bring Heritage’s unique spaces to life.

Our Audience Engagement Workshop was the answer.  Our guides spent their first day exploring the diverse collections of Heritage Museums & Gardens.  The Museum Hack team found tons of great objects and stories, including the incredible artworks of Ralph Cahoon, whose brightly colored paintings feature whimsical scenes inspired by his childhood along the Atlantic coast: sailors and mermaids, hot air balloons, and majestic sailing ships that evoke the romance of Cape Cod.  Our guides also found funny faces, brightly colored antique automobiles, and great opportunities for guests to connect with collections and share their experiences.

Zak and Kelly with carousel horse making faces
Zak and Kelly made a new friend!

Dustin, Kate, Kelly, and Zak then took these amazing stories and customized our workshop to help Heritage Museums & Gardens’ docents re-discover their museum from a fresh perspective.  The group interactively discussed our techniques for high-level audience engagement that can be used during tours or in casual encounters with guests.  Using their research from the day before, our guides demonstrated and practiced “hacked” tours that use storytelling and personal passion to encourage guests to co-create their museum experiences. We also discussed varied types of activities that can be used during tours or one-on-one to help visitors engage with objects and discover new, interesting facts about the museum’s collections.

Dustin leading audience engagement games for Heritage Museums & Gardens
Dustin leads HMG staff in discussions on audience engagement.

For example, many of the docents struggled with connecting the museum’s art collection to the gardens.  Part of our workshop discussed how docents could successfully engage guests in the garden, enabling them to “loosen up” and become more comfortable with different types of opportunities for engagement. Our focus was to help them get an initial buy-in from visitors: opening the doors to deeper engagement without weighing visitors down with tons of facts or ideas.

Museum Hack team posing in front of statues
Dustin, Kate, Zak, & Kelly do one of our favorite museum activities: living pictures!

Yet, in talking with docents, we helped them realize that the key to successful visitor buy-in isn’t just the stories told or the doors opened.  It’s in demonstrating docents’ personal buy-in to the museum.  By showcasing what they loved, docents could open the doors for meaningful conversations about objects and spaces, with guests and each other.  While training in our “5 Elements of a Hack” method, docents worked together to uncover narratives about their museum that they had never shared before. 

Before our workshop, the docents had overlooked certain objects or spaces because they were uncomfortable with collections that they didn’t know much about.  During our workshop, we invited docents – even those who had been working at Heritage Museums & Gardens for years – to discover new ways of looking at these familiar objects and spaces.  By sharing their personal passions with each other, docents learned more about the museum’s collections and each other.  Stories abounded about the objects they loved or ones they had avoided – ranging from how objects were installed in their spaces to their experiences working in the museum and engaging with guests.

Zak poses in front of a brightly colored antique automobile.
Zak poses in front of a brightly colored antique automobile.

As outsiders, our presence demonstrated that the museum’s management was open to new ideas and ways of engaging guests.  In so doing, docents felt they had tacit permission to be weird and try new techniques.  The docents were able to successfully step out of their normal roles and discover not only new ways of fostering connections with visitors – but new ways that they could personally connect to the museum as well. 

Heather, Director of Visitor Engagement at Heritage Museums & Gardens, had this to say about their experience:

“It was a fabulous day.  We are all super energized and excited to do some great visitor engagement.” – Heather

By the end of our visit, Heritage Museums & Gardens docents had re-fallen in love with their museum.  The workshop was a great success!

Ready to fall in love (again) with your museum? Find out about our consulting work with museums, or email us at [email protected] to find out more about how we can help your staff discover new tools and methods for successful audience engagement.

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