What Museums Can Learn From Conferences [1 of 2]

November 22, 2010

in Ideas

This is the first of two articles on what can museums learn from conferences -and vice versa- to improve their experiences, increase the relationship with the visitors/attendees and tap into new audiences. The seed for this writing was born during my frequent visits to museums and conferences around the world and seeing how they could extend their areas of expertise beyond their own industry to cross-pollinate  each other. I was also inspired by the work of Jim Richardson (Twitter, Company), whose Ask a Curator initiative and MuseumNext Conference are updating the museum ecosystem, and Marcel Kampman (Twitter, Web) with his MasterMundo Creative Gathering.

I believe that museums in general can revive the “museum experience” by borrowing one page or two from the conference playbook.

TED Global 2010 reception at the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology (Oxford)

If you think about the advantages that the average museum has over a conference, you’ll find that they often have:

  • an amazing location
  • tons of interesting content waiting to be shared visually, orally or through tactile experiences
  • knowledgeable experts
  • experience in creating physical spaces
  • spatial and lighting design knowledge

What challenges are many museums facing right now? Well, I’m not an expert in the arts and cultural sector but when I visit an exhibition I see that:

  • the relationship between the museum and the visitors is [almost] nonexistent – it’s just me and the art
  • most experiences are passive, relying mostly on audio-guides or text in the walls to tell me what it’s all about, what is relevant, etc
  • they are not engaging with their fans
  • they are not attracting new audiences and I guess there’s a big disconnection with younger generations
  • stimulating word-of-mouth plays a secondary role in their marketing activities
  • they are not giving you many reasons to return more often, except if there’s a new exhibit taking place
  • monetization is usually limited to selling tickets (see previous point), the art shop and the cafeteria

Some purists will say that I’m washing down the cultural aspects of a museum while I consider the following recommendations just the opposite: a way to infuse culturally relevant content into other experiences, breaking the stereotype of the museum as a static container of art and re-purposing it as an active source of art for our cultural and social lives.

Creating and hosting conferences

You don’t need to create a full conference to attract people. Instead you can enrich your current cultural offering by creating a calendar of lectures connected with the current exhibitions. But wait! The world “lecture” is probably not the most appropriate term to transmit what I want you to do. Let’s say you make “TED Talks”: 18 minute presentations in which the speaker highlights one particular aspect of the art, the artist or the social context at the time of the creation of it (eg “How Picasso’s love life influenced his portraits”, “What Cartier-Bresson’s velvet hand and hawk’s eye taught us from post-War societies”… you get the idea). What makes the TED Talks remarkable is that strong emphasis is given to storytelling, bold ideas, great public speaking and state-of-art visual support.

Gather two or three speakers in order to have a 1-hour program and it’s the perfect excuse to visit the museum on a, say, Wednesday evening. Want to push it a bit more? Organize a full conference once or twice a year. If you’re afraid that the task will be too daunting, you could even decide to make a TEDxMuseum, which allows you to borrow an existing brand with easy recognition, attract speakers, delegates and sponsors (more on TEDx here).

You will have to research for passionate and interesting art experts and coach them as if they were like TED speakers (please, don’t underestimate the need of and the power of coaching) and you could even initiate an art-speaker circuit and foster the hidden talents that probably surround your institution.

Crafting a multi-sensory experience

At a recent conference Simon Harrop of the Brand Sense agency described how current media and advertising experiences rely on a visual overload to get their message, while stimulating the other senses of an audience extends our emotional relationship with them. Harrop stated that“if we want to be remembered […] the more senses you add, do not add emotion but multiply it”.

At traditional conferences the information flows visually and orally following the unidirectional broadcasting model. At museums you can multiply the stimulus sources because people are physically immersed in the  content. Don’t adopt the conference model of speaker vs. audience, or “the important guy on stage, the ignorant sitting passively in the room”. Look for example at the photo below from Mastermundo 2008. The division between “speaker” and “audience” is blurred. All participants went to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and walked around while “participants who knew they could say something” (they didn’t use the term “speaker”) used a microphone connected to wireless headphones (to allow people to walk around and also to avoid disturbing the other visitors of the museum) to tell stories, read poetry or even [famous orchestra conductor Itay Talgam] to direct the other attendees in a musical composition. [Find more about what happened at Mastermundo 2008 here].

Impression of Mastermundo Creative Gathering 2008. Photo's by Maurice Mikkers

Tactile experience: let people touch things, play with them (ok, not with those 2,000 AD antiques but maybe with some replicas, sculptures, metallic objects, etc). Integrate social media into the descriptions of the artwork by using RFID tags with the tickets or developing an easy-to-use iPhone app that reads and interacts to QR codes. See for example how Mediamatic uses RFID tags to “like” physical objects directly on Facebook (which can motivate your friends to visit the museum).

Taste: a few years ago some top museums started offering the possibility of dining (e.g.: Metropolitan Museum of Art NY, Museum of Fine Arts Vienna). While I like this kind of initiatives, they are just about eating in a cool place, which acts only as scenery and not active context. Host an aperitif from 6 to 9pm inside the museum so that people can have a drink n’ bite while visiting the exhibitions. Add relevance by getting the food in context by for example offering food relative to the art being exhibited (traditional German appetizers at a Bauhaus-related exhibition, Northern-Japanese specialties at an Inuit art display and so on). Have an expert chef or enologist describe the relationship between what you see and what you eat.

Attracting new audiences

In my opinion, potential new audiences for museums are everywhere (I’m an optimist by design). To attract them you need to focus on their interests and use a language that is compatible with theirs. Let’s say you’re a history museum and want to catch the attention of the YouTube Generation. Consider createing a series of 3-minute videos referring to some of the most famous and other of the lesser-known but most relevant pieces of art in your collection and with the whole series of videos tell a story. What kind of story? Look into school history books. Transform those chapters of boring history lessons into a video-narratives. Host the videos in your site and in YouTube, Facebook page, etc and promote them amongst school teachers (which might already be visiting your museum).

Imagine if kids could remember the important milestones of  history lessons by watching your videos and use them to prepare for their next exam and shared them with their friends. That would be powerful, right?

Notice that I said 3-minute videos, because that’s the ideal average time if you want your video to be fully watched. The video has to be fresh, modern and have a visually strong language. Retell the history of Rome or ancient Greece by showing the pieces in your possession and telling an attractive story connected to them (battles, love affairs, etc). Think that your potential viewers are videogame players so use the visual language of them.

Go even further, connect your content and conference sessions with movies and other popular media hits. Take for example movies (or videogames) like Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Jurassic Park. Retell the story through art, host movie sessions or videogame challenges… imagine something like “Discovering the Maya culture the way Indiana Jones would”.

Surely all of these would create some media attention too, which does not hurt either.

It’s funny that one of the latest buzzwords in the conference business is that organizers should as like “curators” and “curate” great content, speakers, etc. Museums have been doing this for ages and it’s time for them to up the ante. Be curious to explore new territory, risk a bit and transfer some of the budget of your aging (and ineffective) marketing campaigns to these new ventures.

These are just some ideas, what do you think?

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