Monday, January 9, 2012

Five Things Any Museum Can Learn from One of the Big Guys

Last week I was in Los Angeles and took the opportunity to visit the Getty Museum.  I'd never been before and from the long view, it's a place that you imagine being pronounced THE GETTY,  in a deep, sonorous voice,  that has more money, more everything, than anywhere else.  I imagined it as sort of snooty.  And to my delight,  I was totally wrong.   It is a fantastic setting and few of us have a building designed by Richard Meier and gardens designed by Robert Irwin.  Plus, now that I'm back in gray upstate New York, I equally appreciate the sunny setting that few of us have as well!

But the Getty Museum had five aspects that any museum, no matter what your size or discipline, can and should emulate.
1.  Be Friendly  Above,  as a family was going through the galleries and a young boy stopped to look at a sculpture,  a guard stepped forward, smiling, and told the classical myth about the piece.  Being friendly also extends to spaces.  In the center courtyard, there's plenty of tables, welcoming both to those who chose to buy food and to those who bring a picnic lunch.  The Getty's free, but parking is $15, so it means that only $15 could provide a whole day's outing for a family.  A great, friendly deal.  
The gardens are manicured to a T so I imagined it might be the kind of place where you couldn't even walk on the lawn.  Instead,  Frisbee players, readers, loungers,  plant lovers, photographers, kids, adults, all felt welcomed to enjoy the spaces.  

Visitors could photograph everywhere except in the temporary exhibitions.  In several other LA museum visits,  photography was forbidden even in permanent galleries with few objects.  At one museum, when I asked why,   I got a shrug and a "well, they say so,"  from the front desk staff.  Not friendly (and hence, why you won't be seeing those museums here.)

This friendliness,  the feeling of being welcomed, didn't feel phoney,  but it obviously was something that was reinforced by museum leaders. 
2.  Offer Choices  The audio tour offered plenty of choices:  a highlights tour, a tour featuring food in art, tours by time periods, tours for families.  And even within an audio clip itself choices were offered.  As I listened to a curator talk about one piece, it ended with, "and if you want to hear more about the reaction to the piece from the artist,  press 5."  It made me more curious about hearing more--a sense of what's next, rather than just a longer audio to listen to.  There were lots of other choices as well--indoors/outdoors;  self guided/guided tours;  drop-in programs;  and more.
3.  Write Great Labels In particular, the labels in the Pacific Standard Time:  Crosscurrents in LA Painting and Sculpture and the Lyonel Feininger temporary exhibits were terrific.  No pictures allowed in these temporary exhibits and I didn't take notes, but my memory of these is that they were each different in feel, but eminently readable.  The Pacific Standard Time ones were sort of muscular, with lots of active words and a real sense of the power and experimentation of the time period.  The Feininger ones were quieter,  and took the visitor through a life filled with art--but also with family and colleagues.  They were more like having a quiet conversation.  And both seemed blessedly free of the sort of art history jargon all too often found in art museum labels.   There were also additional materials that provided great starting places to think about art, as in this looking at photographs piece.
4.  Be Fun  Because the setting is so spectacular it did seem a place where people really relaxed.  It's not the crazy fun of a children's museum, but a place that's really enjoyable--for all kinds of people (and another note--one of the most diverse audiences I've seen in a long time).  The family room was creative and fun.  In a very small space, they took five works of art and created activities around them,  It worked for many different kinds of learners, from kinesthetic to verbal and everyone seemed to be having a great time.  In another post I'll talk about their Sketching Gallery, an entirely different kind of fun.   The large-scale sculptures really encouraged fun exploration outdoors as well.  The images below show the family fun space that relates to the sculpture below it.
5.  It's in the Details  It's pretty sunny at the Getty and this bin of umbrellas below highlights their attention to details (although I have to admit, I thought they were for rainy weather until I saw a tour group sheltered underneath them). 
This attention to details extends to signage,  to the organization of school group clipboards, to the nametags saying "educator" that are given to teachers with school groups.  It feels like every day, someone thinks about how the museum looks to the visitor.  But what was interesting, that attention to details doesn't feel stiff and formal, but rather welcoming.  A favorite small detail:  the informality of this removed from exhibit card just tucked into the label. 
Obviously, the Getty has significant resources to bring to bear on these five items.  But at any museum, we can pay more attention to them.  We can welcome visitors, we can make sure our signage makes sense, we can have more fun, we can write great labels, and we can pay attention to the small things that make a big impression on our visitors.
And one more:  Appeal to our better natures 
As we waited to take the tram back down,  a sign invited us to take an online survey.  All of us have seen them, and survey takers usually have a chance to win a membership or something of value to them.  This turned that aspect on its head.  For every visitor taking the survey,  the museum would donate $10 to Inner City Arts.  I felt great helping!  What if you said for each survey taken,  you would offer free admission to a family?  How else can we get people to think about the largest aspects of community, not just themselves?

As we were leaving,  I glanced at a small plaque near a bust of J. Paul Getty himself, where it notes that the museum has been dedicated to "delighting and educating its visitors."  You sure did!


Lindsey Baker said...

I love visiting big museums for exactly the same reason--distilling lessons from what they do with all of their resources and trying to think creatively about how to apply it within a much smaller setting. I've actually never been to the Getty for some of the same reasons you mentioned, but I am currently adding it to my list. The last time in LA, we visited the Skirball and it was a great place for big museum lessons for small museums.

Gobae said...

I'm glad to hear the Getty opened most areas to pictures.

I've never fully understood the need to ban photography for other than preservation purposes (eg. "No flash"). The restriction of photography definitely influences my interest in attending. This is especially true if I'm doing historical research on a topic; it's a must!

Nicole said...

This is exactly how I want all our visitors to feel after visiting our museum. Thank you for pointing out this simple & basic information we all need to remember.

Linda said...

Thanks Lindsey, Gobae and Nicole--Gobae, I agree about the photography. It should be a non-issue everywhere, but just isn't. Lindsey--I know, I wonder why more people can't think in these scalable ways. Had wanted to do the Skirball and didn't get there; but do visit the Getty. And Nicole, I think a big part of visitors feeling that way is that the staff thinks they should help visitors feel that same joy. Thanks all for commenting!

Maria Quinlan Leiby said...

Great summary of how any museum can offer super visitor experiences! I will be sharing this, Linda.