Monday, August 27, 2012

What I Learned in Newfoundland #2: We Think Our Visitors are Us

Who do we think our visitors are?  Many, if not most museums may have only anecdotal ideas about the answer to this question.  Based on my experience with a specific workshop activity, I think many museum people are missing the point when we think about audiences.  

My Newfoundland learning #2 is a lesson reinforced from facilitating the same audience collage activity in five different locations in Newfoundland, preceded over the last several years, by the same activity (with many thanks to Susie Wilkening who developed it for AASLH's StEPs curricula) in Connecticut, Kentucky, Oklahoma City and Ukraine. Workshop participants (usually museum staff and volunteers) are assigned a character--say, a woman,  age 65-75,  and asked to create a collage that answers questions about her, such as: 

  • What is my name?
  • How old am I?
  • Do I have children?
  • If so, how old are they? 
  • Am I married?
  • Am I employed?  If so, what do I do?  Or, what did I do?
  • What are my hobbies?
  • What are my obligations?
  • What do I enjoy?
  • What stresses me out?
  • What drains my time?
  • Where do I shop?
  • What is my race or ethnicity?
  • Do I visit museums & historic sites?  If yes, which ones?
With some notable exceptions, these collages do actually reflect the demographics of museum visitors,  but not museum audiences.  When groups complete the collage,  the majority of them represent audiences that are white, college-educated and relatively well-off.  And of course, they love visiting museums!  If it's an older person depicted, it's someone who's active, who travels,  who eats interesting food, and who doesn't worry much about money or a debilitating illness. We tend to think about people like us--I think because that's what we're comfortable with.  So that often means those are the people we dedicate our museum resources to,  we develop programs for, we market to--so of course, those are the people that come.  Everyone else may be left out of the circle.
This was true in Newfoundland as well but a couple groups went deeper and their collages helped groups reach a deeper understanding of their potential audiences.  Four of my five workshops in Newfoundland were in rural locations,  with declining populations and I asked groups to develop profiles of older residents in their communities. In several profiles, older men had only an 8th grade education, as they had left school to help support their family by fishing, a common occurence for that generation ("no wonder they don't want those long labels!"  said one participant).  Because many Newfoundland men of working age now work away, in Alberta or on oil rigs (as they once went away to fish);  older generations are particularly busy with childcare and family responsibilities.  

At one workshop a participant gained a great understanding from this--it was a park,  and they had offered a special seniors day last year, with little impact.  But now it will be a grandparents day, with grandparents encouraged to bring grandchildren to learn about natural history.   What do older Newfoundlanders worry about?  their health;  who will take care of them;  their children and grandchildren;  the economy; and much more.  
For me (and I hope for workshop participants) the learning really started when we probed deeper about the assumptions embedded in the collages.  Why does he like to do that?  Where does she get her information?  Is that really her only worry?  

One goal of these workshops was to make the shift from what can older citizens do for heritage organizations to what can heritage organizations do for older community members.  And our evaluations showed that shift beginning to happen.  Participants commented:
  • It reminded me that seniors come from all walks of life.
  • Made me question assumptions I have about audiences.  Need to think about ways of broadening my perspective and being more inclusive.
  • See in the eyes of seniors, not just your own!
What other lesson did I take away from this?  I think we're often too lazy in thinking about the communities we live in.  There's a tendency to think of "the other" in terms of developing exhibits and services rather than really working to gain an understanding of peoples' interests and needs. We engage in that lazy behavior at our institution's peril, risking disinterest and irrelevance.  

Try out the profiling exercise with your staff and volunteers.  What do you learn? (and if you've been one of my workshop participants,  I'd love to hear your thoughts as well).  

Special thanks to Susie Wilkening and Jane Severs for their ongoing conversations with me on these issues.

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