Welcome to the second posting of the Plinth Forum. The forum is a site of discourse on issues involving museum practice and museum professionals. Our goal is to survey a wide range of opinions from people working in a variety of museum occupations. Initially we see this work as written essays (with links to relevant materials). Over time, however, we hope to expand our range of discursive practices, to take advantage of our digital platform and to make use of tools like YouTube, Pinterest, and other forms of web-based social media. For now, please enjoy the essays below.
Erik Greenberg, Ph.D., Forum Manager
This quarter’s topic: “Museum Visitors”
This year our museum has been developing a master interpretive plan (MIP), and as part of our preparations, we’ve spent a good deal of time talking to all the departments that come into direct contact with our visitors. At least, I thought we had talked to all the departments that come into contact with our visitors, but I was wrong. Several months into the process, at a museum-wide meeting dedicated to sharing our progress on the MIP, staff from a number of departments observed that our definition of the “museum visitor” was too narrow. First, our Events and Sales department (which handles venue use for gatherings that range from conventions to high school proms) reminded us that their clients visit the museum, and may in fact spend more time in the building than the average visitor. Our research librarians then spoke of their visitors, who typically come to the museum to do research in our archival collections, rather than to explore the galleries, but are nonetheless visiting the institution. Our Collections and Native Outreach staff spoke of the numerous meetings they hold with tribal officials, who frequently visit to view our extensive Native collections and to address issues of NAGPRA compliance. And the people who oversee our website made clear that their constituents were visitors, too.
Clearly my definition of the museum visitor had proved too limited (and limiting). And so, naturally, I have spent more than a little time rethinking the meaning of the phrase “museum visitor.” What does it mean to be a museum visitor? Should the phrase only refer to those who travel to our institutions with the express purpose of viewing our exhibitions and installations, or should we broaden our definition to include people who come to the museum for a range of purposes? And what about web visitors? Should people who come to our websites to view our collections online, learn about our hours of operation, or browse our events calendars be considered visitors as well? What about those who just come to the museum to use our bathrooms or eat in our cafes and restaurants – are they visitors, too?
It seems to me that there are two issues at stake here. The first is that today’s museum serves a range of functions that extend well beyond its expected, “traditional” realm of exhibitions and programming. As noted above, many of today’s museums are significant sites of academic research. Some museums have partnered with caterers and local eateries to create restaurants, coffee houses, and bars, while others have focused attention on the land that surrounds them to create parks and other spaces for social gatherings. Museums have become the backdrop for annual business meetings – and even proms. If, like me, you live in Los Angeles, you may see your museum serve as a backdrop for your favorite T.V. show. And as museums begin to address their historic association with the West’s colonial projects in numerous places around the globe, they have become sites of reconciliation between collecting institutions and those whose lives and cultures may have been appropriated and displayed in the name of enlightened investigation into so-called “ancient” or “primitive” cultures. In each of these iterations, people come to visit the museum, but their range of activity varies greatly, and so, too, should the institution’s efforts to welcome and engage them.
And this variety of activity points to the second issue that confronts us when thinking about museum visitors, namely language. I seem to employ only one word to describe the vast range of people who interact with museums, and I am not sure that it’s a particularly good word, at that. Think about “visitors” to your own home, for example. Naturally there are people you care about and like, people who you go out of your way to make feel at home, such as friends and family, but others visit your home too. The cable guy is a visitor, and so are the landlord, the door-to-door salesman, and the exterminator, to name a few. I am sure I speak for every museum professional when I say that I hope we treat those who walk through our institutions’ doors better than we do the cable person who promised to arrive sometime between 12p.m and 4p.m. and finally rings your doorbell at 4:06.
This kind of linguistic parsing may seem silly to some, but I would argue that the terms we employ to describe those people who visit our institutions can (or should) help us understand the best way to treat them. For example, we could call them guests. After all, the word “guest” implies a kind of welcome that “visitor” doesn’t seem to get at. Whether they be dinner guests or house guests (i.e., guests that stay the night) most of us typically go out of our way to ensure our guests’ comfort and to make them feel welcome. I think we can all agree that we would like those who come to our institutions to be comfortable during their visit, just as we aim for comfort when welcoming dinner or house guests into our homes.
Perhaps the name we employ for those who visit our museums should reflect more fully our institutions’ missions. Several years ago I suggested that we call our visitors “explorers” and that all of our language, from the greetings offered by our on-floor staff to the text in our galleries and other sites, reflect the sense of wonder and excitement associated with exploration. Or perhaps we would be better served to match our language with the purpose of each person’s visitation. Those who come to the museum to walk through our galleries could be called learners or students. At institutions that place a greater emphasis on audience participation in the museum experience, perhaps their visitors should be called partners, or allies, or even co-curators. People who come to our institutions for outside events (such as proms or business meetings) might be called clients. After all, clientele have a certain expectation of service that visitors may not. And I am not sure what to call those who visit us on the web. Increasingly, museum websites have become important sources of information and engagement, and yet I’m not quite sure our institutional strategies have caught up with our digital footprints. Perhaps E-customers? Surfers? Virtual Visitors?
With these questions on our mind, we ask this quarter’s contributors to think about our visitors, our publics, our guests, our friends…you pick the term. Should we consider all people who come to the museum our visitors regardless of their reason for the visit? How should we accommodate the different range of visitor activities at our institutions? To what extent should we alter our language, and by connection our behavior, to better reflect the access, purpose, and expectations of those who visit or engage with us? Perhaps your institution already has a different term, or set of terms, for the people who come to your museum, physically or online. If so, please tell us about those terms and how they influence the interactions between visitor and museum. If you’re wrestling with these questions or moving in new directions, we want to hear about it. We look forward to learning from you.
This quarter’s participants are Laureen Trainer, Jonell Logan, and Thomas Canavan
Erik Greenberg is the Director of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. and MA in American history and is particularly interested in the ways in which historians attempt to engage the broader public.