Ask more questions: bring your audience into the decision-making

A recent conversation in our house started like this:

Why don’t you do an exhibition on dancing?

Ooh not a bad idea, must admit I have not thought of such broad themes like this before and start imagining how this exhibition might look and feel.  But what really gets me thinking, from this conversation, is how to bring audiences up into the beginning of the selection process around themes and narratives.  I see this as slightly different to crowd-sourcing content for exhibitions, which has been happening successfully by museums already. The Brooklyn Museum has used this model with several exhibitions such as Split Second: Indian Paintings-framed as on online experiment and the recently launched Go-a community-curated open studio project.

We put on exhibitions for our communities and yet there is rarely the opportunity to engage them in the initial decision-making using our collections with the traditional exhibition development model.  What do you want to see here?  Are we putting on exhibitions that you are really interested in?  These questions may be asked buried deep down in an evaluation questionnaire but are they upfront on our home pages?  Would doing this narrow the gap between curators museological interpretation and visitors experiences?

What if we had a simple tool on the home page of our websites that allowed our audiences to get involved in this process?

This is one that we prepared earlier (disclaimer: it is made by the teenager)

Be upfront about what themes you should be targeting.  They can obviously be steered towards collections, narratives and topics relevant to the organisation, but put it out there.  Be open and transparent about the decision-making.  Ask the question: What exhibition themes inspire you?

Ed Rodley is reflecting on the radically transparent museum in his series Making a museum from scratch and proposes:

that our museum be radically transparent, that we organize it around the notion that everything should be transparent unless it needs to be otherwise.

If we do this, then why not start at the beginning. Be transparent from end to end.

Audiences have a far greater choice nowadays to be entertained due to the vast amount of accessible content that exists in this networked environment.  Do our exhibition models need to change much like the newspaper model has needed too?

Audiences are getting used to sharing processes and getting access to content through social media and online tools.  Providing audiences with the opportunity to have meaningful and engaging ways to connect with museums, exhibitions and collections is becoming even more prevalent today.

If the exhibition model is too problematic to facilitate then the question could be relevant to the collection to engage an audience not familiar with it or not heading over to search.

What object would you like to see in our foyer this month?

Keep it on a smaller scale, sometimes the more scalable model can have impact. With the large proportion of collections not being on display or accessible to the public it is overdue that audiences be able to converse more deeply on their existence. Collections like menus:

What would you like?

Obviously then we have to think about and be agile enough to deliver the new model. As Mia Ridge points out on her post Museums and the audience comment paradox that it can be a big challenge to provide a quality experience when implementing ‘have your say’ interactives.

But worth taking some risks I say. We need the ‘What’s on’ in our sites but we should be adding the ‘What would you like us to put on’ too

Photo by Paula Bray  CC BY-NC 3.0