Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Don't Museums have SuperFans? Should We?

Yesterday, strolling in downtown Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, we saw an outdoor exhibit and went over to take a look--and it was about superfans, those people who love, love, love,  Donetsk's football team,  Shakhtar (the miners, in tribute to the region's mining past and present).  Fans with their scarf collection, with their team mascot, the mole (underground, get it?) fans getting married,  and much more.  
But it made me wonder why museums can't be so appreciative of what the people who support us do?  This was not an exhibit about big donors, but rather featured everyday people, who, in their leisure time, loved the team.  Do any museums have members that feel that way about them?  Jasper Visser has mentioned about the importance of creating tribes who care about and support museums and other cultural organizations--and soccer fans are definitely tribes,  but highlighting those fans who support the team seemed like something that could transfer to another setting.  Should museums recognize their fans?  How?

And, a brief shout-out to Donetsk for their many new information kiosks, with maps in three languages, including English, as a run-up to the Euro 2012 event!


Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

How indeed. This is a good question to which I hope many readers respond. I can't think how, and would love to hear others' comments and ideas.
(By the way, I love this blog and the uncommon thinking presented here.)

Suse Cairns said...

If you think about what people are "superfans" of, they are - almost without exception - things that have very discernible "personalities" at play. Sporting teams have star players, good guys and bad guys.

Rock stars live seemingly outrageous lifestyles.

Apple has Steve Jobs.

Virgin has Richard Branson.

People become superfans of a team/organisation, but that happens in part due to the personal connection they can have with the personalities in the organisation. And generally those personalities are larger than life, with lives their fans can live vicariously through.

Instead, museums are businesses and buildings - nameless and faceless. It's hard to inspire someone to really associate with/get behind something like that. To get superfans, museums would need to give people something tangible and personal to connect to - a 'rockstar' in a museum. Maybe a great curator could do it - but I don't know too many people who would want to live vicariously through a curator (although a wild artist-in-residence might do).

People become fans of things they associate with and want to align themselves to. And even with this, oftentimes museums don't really focus their brand enough to only be 'for' one particular type of person.

In becoming a 'superfan', people are usually seeking recognition that they are "like this" and not "like that" - ie, they are a fan of the Chicago Bulls instead of the Phoenix Suns for more reasons than just where they are from - it's about who they associate with, and how they seem themselves. And generally museums seem to want to be for everyone... it's very hard to get people excited about being part of a club that anyone can be a member of. Even the fans of sporting teams often have to prove their legitimacy through their knowledge about the club.

Therefore, in order to have superfans, I think museums would need to narrow their focus, and be prepared to exclude some sections of society - and I don't know whether that would or should happen.

Having said that, I am all for coming up with some sweet promotion that does get people excited and 'backing' the museum. Let's find a specific museum to use as a test case, and play with some ideas!

Philippa said...

Actually I think we do, visitors who come to every exhibition without fail, often many times, who attend every talk and opening, who buy things in our shop to send to their friends on birthdays, who tell their friends how great our cafe is.

I think what we're much worse at doing is celebrating those people (unless they give lots of money of course). I'd love to hear examples of museums that have managed to.

Jasper Visser said...

Museum do have Super Fans. Certainly they do. Capitalizing on them, however, is a completely different thing. Some of the great(est) marketing thinkers like Seth Godin write and write about tribes, brand advocates, enthusiasts etc. The most loved (and "liked" on Facebook) museum brands understand this and use this.

Anyway, "Instead, museums are businesses and buildings - nameless and faceless. It's hard to inspire someone to really associate with/get behind something like that." -> In the Netherlands some museum directors have almost "rock star" fame (within the small, museum visiting part of society). This, certainly, works for them and the museums they run. However, it shouldn't turn into a trick.

An object can also be the rock star to create super fans, such as the lion in the Gripsholm's Castle in Sweden.

Recognizing fans doesn't require an exposition about them. It does require taking them seriously though, and continuously adding real value to their lives.

N.B. I fantasized about what Richard Branson would do if he owned a museum here:

Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

I don't believe museums have to be "nameless and faceless," though I suppose some are. Maybe more have common, indistinctive, or boring faces. A museum can certainly have a recognizable "voice," a personality and attitude, not as promimently as a sports team maybe, but percievable to its fans and followers. And the voice can and should be engaging enough to generate a version of the super-fan (albiet probably a milder, museum-ish version of super-fanship than a sports team or rock star!).
Part of the question then is how to recognize these patrons. Do we need to, as long as we continue to engage them? Not sure, but part of the engagement IS a kind of recognition--in a history museum at least--the recognization that those people Then were a lot like they are/we are Now. Maybe to real and sincere super fans just doing our job well (a huge assignment really) is enough...?

Jeff Gates said...

One thing to consider is the historical position museums have occupied in culture: near the "high" end of the continuum. If museums continue to place themselves in that position they will be less likely to attract "super fans." Upper classes, who are often the major supporters of museums, don't tend to be "rabid" supporters. ;-)

Suse Cairns said...

Yes! Jeff nails it. My comment was probably more in reference to the pics above than the text. I cannot imagine someone decked out in full 'museum' gear, screaming wildly. But of course, Philippa and Jasper are right... we do have fans. It's just a different sort of fandom.

Samantha said...

I definitely think museums have superfans. Repeat visitors are superfans. They wouldn't come back if they weren't excited to go to their favorite museum. They wouldn't "like" or become a "fan" of their favorite museum on Facebook or other social networking sites, if they weren't big supporters. Unpaid staff members (volunteers, interns) are also superfans. They wouldn't come work for free if they didn't love the museum.

I can't think of the museum at the moment, but a museum I visited in Baltimore last month--I visited numerous educational departments for a JHU museum studies summer seminar--mentioned that they no longer call their museum members, members, instead they call them fans.

By the way, the newcurator has a post on museum fans at

Mus(eum)ings: Musings from a Museum Intern

Linda Norris said...

Wow! This was a quick post I dashed off, in between Pickle Project ( work and so pleased to have such thoughtful comments. Suse--I'm interested in the idea that it's a person--and then does something like that octopus who predicted the world cup work because it's a personification? Phillipa--you're right--I think museums do have superfans, but that we, the sometimes nameless, faceless museum, are not as good at celebrating them. Although I do like the idea of some museum superfan madly screaming while wearing museum colors! Made me think about the naval battle between the Queens Museum of Art and someone else that was held last year. If I had to guess, Samantha, the museum you mention is the Museum of Visionary Art in Baltimore, who does a great job at connecting with people--and I think does so without narrowing the spectrum. I'd also suggest that sports fandom isn't necessarily a high/low culture thing as it seems I know plenty of Boston Red Sox fans/museum workers. Fascinating thread, all--thanks!