NEMA wrap-up 2: Cultural Consumption and Gut Reactions

Time for NEMA Wrap Up 2: Numbers and emotions!  (Those do not usually go well together, but we’re going for it anyway.)

informal feedback board from NEMA 2014

Feedback, whether formal or informal, is the most constant thing on the menu for museums who want to figure out what’s actually happening in their spaces.

Culture Track: Understanding Boston Museum-Going Audiences

Have you noticed how data-hungry people are these days?  From fitbits to count your number of steps per day to ways to measure your driving habits, your energy consumption, and the efficiency of your home heating system, everyone seems to love a bunch of numbers to crunch.  The museum field is no different.

Fortunately, Boston’s MFA recently paired with the folks over at La Placa Cohen to create the first city-focused Culture Track study of museum audience behavior in the greater Boston area (these are usually done at the national level).  The announcement, with links to the entire report and the summary presentation, is here.

The study aimed to understand audiences, not just “What are they doing? How are they engaging in culture? Why do they decide to participate?” but also “What’s really driving or discouraging audiences?  How do local trends compare to national ones?”   The study was also planned as a test case as a way to establish “shared & actionable data” for museums in the area.

These were a few highlights I took away from the session (though I encourage you to check out the full report as well!):

  • Since 2011, the percent of respondents who attend at least one cultural activity per year has increased in almost all fields.
  • The youngest audiences drive the market in Boston: cultural attendance among the younger ages of respondents is much higher here than the national average.
  • People are looking for “entertainment and enlightment” but the social aspects are very important:  almost half of millenials won’t go if they are going alone.
  • Audiences in all age brackets are looking for convenience (low cost, easy parking and opening hours) in addition to there being interesting topics and activities available.
  • All  culture-consuming Greater Bostonians are info-hungry and seek out information about their proposed activities ahead of time: websites, news articles, brochures, youtube videos, etc.

There were also a number of good questions brought up about further possibilities for study, including tracking visitors who only attend free events, or thinking about ways to improve the perceived value of memberships as organizational support.  Lots of food for thought!

Objects and Emotion

Rainey Tisdale and Linda Norris, authors of Creativity in Museum Practice, led a really interesting and highly entertaining session on provoking emotion through objects in museums.  In their typical style, this was a highly participatory session too, starting with a question like “Does incorporating strong emotion in the museum world make us nervous?” and then asking us to remember and consider objects in our own lives that provoke emotion.  (A lot of us chose gifts/remembrances of lost family members, which was interesting.)

The importance of emotion – especially strong emotion – is that it is closely tied to memory: both memories already held, and those created in that moment.

“Every memory comes with an emotional ‘stamp’ attached to it.  The stronger the emotional value the more likely sensory information is to pass this inital inspection and be admitted into memory.” – John Falk

In fact, according to Norris and Tisdale, in a study soon to be published by Reach Advisors, Susie Wilkening will report that ‘transformative’ or ‘aha’ moments need these elements: immersive environments, real objects, narrative/story, emotion.  (This is not surprising, perhaps, but as in the post section above, everyone loves the data that will prove it!)

In the exercises that followed, we were asked to pick a favorite object from our own museums, and to then call out a number of emotions.  Then we all sorted our objects into one of those emotions, ranging from ‘wonder’ to ‘anxiety’ to ‘confusion’ to ‘skepticism’ and beyond.  And we were asked to consider these points when going back to our own institutions to design a new visitor experience:

  • Some emotions are easier for museums than others (abundance, nostalgia, pride, tragedy).
  • Emotions are complicated – how do we get to the less explored territory beyond the emotions mentioned above?
  • An object can prompt the same emotion in multiple people and/or different emotions in different people. (All equally valid!)
  • Providing opportunities for emotion is more important than dictating what they should feel –  let people find their own resonance.

Some suggestions for ways to get to those emotional resonances included:

  •  cataloging by emotion (adding tags to your catalog based off staff assessments of a work’s emotional weight)
  • collecting by emotion (asking your community to donate objects with emotional resonance, complete with the stories about why)
  • tagging by emotion (getting visitors to use post-its or other ways to tag objects on view with the emotions they feel when looking at them)
  • designing to provoke emotion (lighting, stories in labels/media accompaniment, juxtapositions with other objects, visitor feedback areas)

If you’re looking for more information or a good emotion-bank starting place, here’s the handout from the session: ObjectsandEmotionHandout

Do you have a particularly emotion-laden object in your museum or personal collection?  What makes it resonate?  Share it in the comments!

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