Monday, November 16, 2015

How's Your Audience Feeling? Here's One Answer

This past week, I was in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, beginning a new project for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.  They've opened a new headquarters with dedicated space in the lobby area for a history exhibition. The RNC is the oldest police force in North America, with a proud history.  They've put together a volunteer committee of retirees and working policemen and raised funds to do the exhibit, highlighting a fascinating collection of objects and images. It wasn't surprising to me when I asked who the exhibit was for, getting responses like: constables, school groups, maybe tourists who wander over from The Rooms, the provincial museum next door.  Just what I expected.

But then I got a response I've never heard any museum person give anywhere.  Our audience, said one committee member,  "is people under stress.  We see good people here on their worst days."  At most museums, I think, we see people on their good days, not on the day their car was stolen, for instance.  What a challenge for designer Melanie Lethbridge and me.  We have to tell a complicated story--one of labor strikes, of sectarian violence, of devastating fires and more--in ways that connect both with those who have a deep pride in this particular history--and at the same time--reach out to those people who are perhaps bored, mad or more, waiting in a police lobby.   It's a different experience than a memorial museum and it's one I think we'll puzzle at for a while, to find a successful approach.

My other surprise?  I floated the idea of some sort of talkback board, envisioning that police would not be about letting people write whatever they want.  Again, surprise!  "We're big on social media" they said--"If we let people comment on our Facebook page or tweet to us, of course they could do it here."  How many times have you been in a room where someone said, "Oh no,  we could never let people just write what they want!"  whether it be online or in an exhibition.  Not these folks.

Big on social media?  25,000 Twitter followers--that's almost 5% of the population of the province. So big on social media that they were just featured on a Social Spotlight website analyzing social media campaigns.  My favorite element of their ongoing work?  They're funny:  they sent out an all points bulletin for summer last July when it was cold all month;  they checked out a Delorean for speeding on Back to the Future Day.

My Newfoundland lessons from last week?  Understand your visitors emotional selves, be open, and have fun.  Thanks RNC.


Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

Wow. My first thought is, "I want to move to Newfoundland." But it's way too cold. What an inspiring attitude -- AND an interesting post. I'm the curator of a small history museum, and have always felt that learning and becoming familiar with the past -- the good and bad bits both --is a kind of comfort. The connection to the human race engendered by history is its value, and in some ways its comfort. I guess I too, without thinking about it, expect exhibits to give pleasure, hope, and comfort. Thank you for this insightful post.

Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

I just reread this (because I told myself the first time that it is worth rereading) and had missed the part about having fun--maybe one of the most important suggestions ever. Sometimes this is hard work, for various reasons (for me the working with people who see history differently), and FUN is a necessity. If you ever come to northern California I'd like to meet you. I don't meet many "grown ups" who mention their work as being fun, and I should. thanks again

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Ginny, for reading and re-reading! Fun is a necessity! and we're lucky to have jobs that we can have fun in. I'll definitely be in touch if my path takes me to Northern California.