Your museum is f***ing awesome.
- You collect and preserve many of the best artifacts the world has ever created;
- You document and record the rich history of humanity, Earth & the cosmos;
- You share your expertise and passion with new visitors; Every. Single. Day;
- And often, you do it with very little recognition – many museum professionals are unsung heroes, carrying us through the millennia.
But here’s the most amazing part: the vast majority of what you collect, preserve, document, record and share is just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago, and it will still be relevant 1000 years from now. Many museums are timeless.
So, how does a timeless institution handle flashy, flavor-of-the-day type trends? Should you participate? Should you ignore them? This article shares our take based on thousands of tours and dozens of experiments. It may surprise you!
First Things First: Definitions
For the purpose of this article, we aren’t discussing larger social trends, e.g., the trends toward globalization, environmental degradation, or better workplace equality. All of these are important issues, and deserve to be discussed with rigor – but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Today, we’re talking about how your museum interacts with short-lived trends, the type typically driven by pop culture and social media. Pokemon Go lasted about a month, Pogs peaked in 1994, and is anyone still doing the mannequin challenge? If it’s a meme or short-lived trend, it’s fair game here.
How and when should your museum interact with these trends?
The Answer: Follow the 80/20 Rule of Audience Engagement
At Museum Hack, we believe there are core elements of audience engagement that are universal to all museums. These elements include telling great stories, showing that the artifacts are personally relevant to visitors, and making tours interactive, among many other techniques.
Those core principles are the first 80 percent of the 80/20 Rule of Audience Engagement. If you get them right, your visitors are going to remember you for decades, and it’s a great way to increase word-of-mouth about your museum as visitors share your stories with their friends.
We will explain the other 20 percent in a moment, but first a few rules that apply to the 80 percent:
- Play and Practice: These are malleable principles that need to be adapted to each new space. It’s okay if you aren’t a master storyteller now, and it’s okay if you’ve never planned a gallery game in your life. You can start small, and practice to develop your skills;
- Learn From the Masters: One of the best ways to learn a new skill or technique is by imitation, and one of the best ways to skip over the “headaches” of learning on your own is to learn from experts. There are countless examples of great storytellers in history – what can you learn from them?;
- It’s Not 80 Percent Until It’s 100 Percent: These fundamentals are so important that we recommend you focus on them exclusively until you are comfortable you have strong processes in place for audience engagement. Only once your fundamentals are 100 percent in place, should they be given less than 100 percent of your attention.
That last point is perhaps the most important, because it goes back to this article’s question: should your museum jump on pop culture trends? The short answer: it depends. If you’re confident you have a strong grasp of the 80 percent foundation of audience engagement, then yes, keeping up with memes and trends is one action item you can do for the other 20 percent. But if you’re still working on the fundamentals, you should wait to develop your programs further.
Now let’s talk about the 20 percent.
The 20 Percent: How to Experiment With Style
Once your fundamentals are in place, you can vigorously pursue the other 20 percent: experimentation. When you experiment with new techniques and approaches to audience engagement, you open your museum up to two great forces: social buzz and the power of serendipity.
You can experiment with thousands of different elements, but we recommend you start with tour types, tour elements, and memes. These experiments don’t have to include pop trends, but it’s a great opportunity to test them out and see what happens.
Here are some examples of experiments we’ve done at Museum Hack with successful results:
- When we introduced Bachelorette Party tours, industry publications like The Knot and Bumble wrote about them. The result? Dozens of brides with their bridesmaids, family and friends have joined us for these classy bachelorette parties in museums;
- Our Pokemon Tour of the Met was a quick idea released as Pokemon Go fever was at its highest. We created an information page, shared it with the media, and promoted it to our audience. Pokemon Tours were featured on Fox News, Gothamist, and many media sites. The Facebook event we created for the tours quickly reached 3400+ interested guests, an entirely new audience for the museum;
- We love to participate in memes, like the mannequin challenge, and will try to add our own fun twists. This is great content for our Facebook channel, and videos usually see high levels of engagement.
These experiments are just a few examples in an infinite sea of creative opportunity. You can find your own formulas, and run your own experiments. Not every experiment you run will be a wildly popular hit, but it will still be a success as you learn more about your audience.
The Final Answer: Say “No” to Distractions and Say “Yes” to Trends!
Your museum is an awesome, cultural pillar of your community. You are curators of art and guardians of history. You are a timeless and permanently relevant institution. But as awesome as you are, you don’t get to rest on your laurels.
It’s your responsibility to make sure audiences that come to your museum are engaged and learning. You can reach and maintain this standard by practicing the fundamentals of engagement: telling stories and making your gallery relevant to your guests. While you are developing your expertise, say no to trends – they are distractions. But once you are comfortable with the fundamentals, those distractions become opportunities for you to wow your guests. You can create, explore and experiment in ways they never imagined a museum would.