Asking the Folks Who Do the Work: Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum
When I first cracked open Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, I found myself staring at photos of the very halls through which I walk every day. I had flipped to a random page, and landed in Chapter 10: “Columbus Museum of Art: Museum as Community Living Room.” As a gallery associate, I see every day the changes the Columbus Museum of Art has made to make good on their mission of “Great experiences with great art for everyone.” In fact, I’m a part of that commitment to the visitor. We welcome every visitor as they explore the galleries, engaging them in questions about the collection and helping create memorable experiences. Reading Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, I hoped to see the perspectives of a variety of museum professionals working to create visitor-centered experiences and to learn about the approaches taken at museums other than my own.
The authors of Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum approached the subject of visitor-centered museums from two different points of view—one a museum professional, the other a social science researcher. These perspectives lead to two primary questions inspiring the study. Question one: “What are museums doing for art museum visitors who do not choose to use portable technologies?” Question two: “How do museums see their social mission as their mission extends to meaningfully engage broader audiences?” To more closely study this ongoing debate, Samis and Michaelson solicited nominations for museums innovating in visitor-centered practice. From those nominations, twenty museums were chosen for study total, with ten of those to be studied more in depth. The in depth study included interviews with thirty-two professionals, including eleven interviews with directors, and seven each with curators, educator-interpretive specialists, and cross-departmental teams. The authors used these interviews as much as possible to tell the stories of the museums’ journeys towards visitor-centeredness.
In their explorations, Samis and Michaelson discovered two connected changes happening in the museums: “Adopting a visitor-centered approach to exhibition development often leads to structural changes in the museum itself, including new museum roles and forms of staff collaboration.” Each chapter focuses on a different museum, detailing each institution’s approach to visitor-centeredness, as well as the challenges faced by staff. Museums seeking to focus on visitors often are accused of “dumbing down content” or “sacrificing scholarship.” In her interview, Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum of California replied to those accusations, “It’s not a trade-off. It’s an and, not an or, to be visitor-centered and committed to scholarship, committed to collection care, committed to, you know, the primacy of the object, to the role of the artist. Yes, we still care about serious scholarship, we care about curatorial expertise. And in fact, visitors want that as well, you know?” However, it doesn’t often seem to be visitors accusing museums of dumbing content down, with the exception of visitors with exceptional knowledge of a museum’s content who may be categorized into John Falk’s Professional/Hobbyist role. No, it often is other museum professionals making the accusations.
Samis and Michaelson found that professionals trapped in departmental silos struggled to communicate and to work together in newly formed cross-departmental teams. One such team existed at the Columbus Museum of Art from 2008 to 2010. Merilee Mostov, at the time Chief Engagement Officer, led Connecting Art to People, its meetings “designed to foster provoking conversations about the visitor experience, including curatorial, development, administrative, marketing, visitor services, and education staff.” This team pushed themselves and their own boundaries to create the visitor-centered experiences seen at the Columbus Museum of Art today. Writing of the experience in an issue of the Journal of Museum Education, former curator Catherine Evans said, “Armed with statistics concerning “museum fatigue” and how little time visitors spend in intense looking, we aimed to deepen the visitor experience. We introduced comfortable seating throughout the installation. This seemingly common-sense idea came only after attending a CAP (Connecting Art and People) meeting during which Merilee [Mostov] refused to allow us to sit. We expect to be comfortable while thinking and learning—why would we not allow for our visitors to experience the same comfort if we expect the same from them?” While I was not on staff at the Columbus Museum of Art at the time of these meetings, I can see the results every day in the galleries. Documented well in Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, the CMA galleries are full of connectors, “any strategy that connects people to the art, besides the art itself. … They are the hooks that give velcro to a specific work and make it stick.” The authors even mention our team of gallery associates, speaking briefly in a note of “staff members trained to engage with visitors about the exhibitions.”
I love that our team gets this shoutout in Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, a book that does an excellent job exploring the possibilities for visitor-centeredness in museums. Using interviews and photos from their in-person explorations of museums, Samis and Michaelson have written a book that advocates strongly for visitor-centeredness in museums, while making it clear that there is no one right way to approach the challenge. Its format makes the book an easy read, with each chapter being concluded with a list of key takeaways, summing up the lessons of the chapter. Its strengths and merits aside, Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum has a main flaw from my perspective. In interviewing staff, the authors chose director, curators, and other influential staff. While I understand this decision, I feel the book is lacking the perspective of frontline staff, the professionals who spend every day directly engaging with visitors. As Columbus Museum of Art executive director Nannette Maciejunes wrote in her article for the Journal of Museum Education, “We quickly discovered that saying you are visitor-centered is far easier than actually doing it.” So why not ask the staff who spend every day actually doing it?
Evans, Catherine. “The Impact of the Participatory, Visitor-Centered Model on Curatorial Practice.” Journal of Museum Education 39, no. 2 (July 2014): 152-161.
Falk, John H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. London: Routledge, 2016.
Maciejunes, Nannette V. “The Director’s Perspective: A Changing Paradigm.” Journal of Museum Education 39, no. 2 (July 2014): 132-138.
Mostov, Merilee. “Making Space for Experimentation, Collaboration, and Play: Re-imagining the Drop-in Visitor Experience.” Journal of Museum Education 39, no. 2 (July 2014): 162-174.
Samis, Peter, and Mimi Michaelson. Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum. New York: Routledge, 2017.