Erik has raised a series of important questions – many of which I have asked and addressed throughout my career. How do we refer to our museum visitors, and how do those terms affect the way we see them? I have worked in institutions in which docents have referred to non-traditional museumgoers as “those people” and can absolutely confirm that titles can affect the way we treat our guests. Are we kinder to “guests” or “visitors?” Do “donors” receive a higher standard of care and engagement than “members?” In an industry dedicated to audience, these ideas must be considered.
I conducted a series of informal surveys with colleagues in the field, and found that many institutions have different titles for those coming to museums. In general, the term “visitor” referred to people coming to experience exhibitions and programs, while “guest” was used for those attending meetings or private events. In some cases, guests (as defined above) were directed to enter institutions through staff entrances, as opposed to those for the general public.
In considering what we call museum visitors, the question of reporting attendance numbers is also important. Should we include everyone who walks through our doors in the admissions numbers, regardless of intention? It is often true that museums count everyone who enters the building, as attendance numbers play an important role in funding. While I don’t always agree with that practice, a colleague argued that a bathroom visitor may in fact be inspired by a work of art they experienced while entering or exiting the space. Are there specific terms we should use in light of these possibilities? With grant writing and reporting an important part of the non-profit world, we must have standard terms for those we serve and their level of engagement. I don’t believe, however, that these terms will remain static.
We are all aware that language transforms over time, and that rate of change is happening even faster in the digital age. In museums, our choices of words shift as meaning and intention are directly affected by the reconsideration of our role in relationship to the public. In a 2013 AAM Center for the Future of Museums blog discussion, Engaging with a Director of Audience Development, Adam Rozan, the Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum, discussed his views on “audience engagement.” Throughout the conversation he refers to the public both as the “audience” and “visitors” to the institution. He also discusses what he believes museums must do remain in business in the future:
I am hoping that the smart museums will toss up their hands and realize that our futures depend on a new model, one that allows museums to play a role in contemporary society that balances the visitor’s needs and wants with the safety, preservation and engagement of its collections. If we can adopt and implement more of this kind of thinking today, then we can move forward toward the bigger work, addressing how to sustain these types of institutions.
In January of this year, the National Endowment for the Arts released its summary of three reports on the arts and engagement. While the data comes from reports completed in 2012, the information has had an immediate ripple effect on museums and audience perception in 2015. On the question of museum attendance, the report revealed that 73% of people’s first motivation for patronizing performances and exhibitions is to socialize with family or friends. Learning was a secondary motivator, coming in at 64%. At the same time, 50% of adults attend arts events with friends, while 68% of parents with children under six go to socialize. When it comes to technology, an amazing 71% of those surveyed used electronic media to watch or listen to art.
The findings of the NEA report support Rozan’s position on museums and their need to develop a new model as more and more people see museums as social spaces, and demand online access and a greater use of technology. In these new museums, the term “visitor” can no longer just apply to those traveling to institutions with “the express purpose of viewing our exhibitions and installations.” In many cases, seeing our various collections may be secondary to the social environment that large, public organizations can create.
The NEA statistics not only illustrate the various ways people interact with museums, but highlight barriers for public interaction. While attending events are social activities, 47% of those participating in the survey cite time as a challenge, and 38% referenced cost as a barrier. Possibly more significantly, the report also details the relationship between arts, culture, and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Over 4% of the GDP, which is equivalent to about $698 billion dollars, was contributed to the US economy by the arts and culture sector in 2012. This information is encouraging institutions to reconsider how to better serve parents, adults, and the online community. As museum-goers strategically use their dollars to support museums that are more successfully meeting their needs, this increasingly important economic layer of the of audience engagement also brings another term to Erik’s list – “consumer.”
As museum professionals, we are all invested in cultivating a stronger relationship between the institution and those we serve. I am aware that we must be conscious of the language we use to describe the people coming through our doors. If I am honest, however, I would argue that the terms we use are secondary considerations. Curating experiences that are not only mission-driven, but serve the specific needs of our various audiences (visitors, patrons, guests, facility rentals and the like) – is key. The ultimate goal is to transition our meeting attendees to visitors, members, and ultimately longer-standing patrons of our organizations. To do that, we must not only consider the reason for the visit, but also how to make that visit the first step in what will be an ongoing connection.
I think Erik’s question is an important one, as museums and cultural spaces are created to engage and serve people. I am not sure, however, if the industry will every really be able to settle on a single term. We refer to those we serve as visitors, patrons, constituents, guests and event friends because we are dealing with people. Relationships with people are complex. As museums continue to explore this relationship, needs change, expectations change, and language will need to have that flexibility as well.
Jonell Logan is the Director of Education and Public Programs at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture in Charlotte, NC. She has an extensive background in museum education, having worked at various institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, and Studio Museum in Harlem.