Even if the Book is Dead . . . Long Live Reading!
A discussion that occurs with increasing regularity is the need for cultural institutions to be relevant to public they serve. The discussion considers relevancy of both subject matter and technology. Conventional wisdom in this area is often based on unsubstantiated assumptions about current and future trends. As well, I hear the occasional equivalent of holding one’s breath and waiting for the “good old days” return. I am fond of noting that if one adopts the latter approach, they will die of asphyxiation while waiting. In today’s cultural heritage institution we question the work we do on a range of fronts – is presentation optimized for public use? is it relevant?
There are a host of excellent resources to help think about these questions. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance publishes a Cultural Engagement Index that explores how Philadelphians in a 20-mile radius of the city center engage in culture. The Alliance’s survey methodology allowed the inclusion of a representative sample of all Philadelphians.
Here is an item from the Index I found relevant when considering how to present exhibits or programs in a museum or other cultural heritage setting. In an era where conventional wisdom suggests that books and reading are on their deathbeds, the Index found that 74% of respondents read books for pleasure at least once a month. This statement is at odds with Steve Jobs proclamation that “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore . . . Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.” A post in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog by a Harvard librarian argues against Jobs’ statement. Futurist Thomas Frey presents a balanced assessment on books as we know them, and how reading will exist in the future. Frey’s approach and perspective seem the most helpful in charting a course forward on this question. Frey notes it is not a matter of reading books vs. not reading books. This goes back to the important point made by Clay Shirkey in his book Cognitive Surplus – the technology does not predict the behavior, rather the technology is a servant to the behavior. The relevance of all this to cultural heritage professionals is to ask “What technology best suits the public’s demonstrated desire to learn more about the cultural heritage of themselves and others?
Like the Philadelphia Index, there are other useful tools to help move beyond conventional wisdom to evaluate public experiences, perceptions and trends. A good starting point is the Informalscience.org site has links to evaluation resources. Another excellent source of survey data on cultural heritage visitors is available from Reach Advisors. In addition to being a key data resource in publications such as Life Stages of the Museum Visitor, the Reach Advisors blog has a mind-boggling array of cultural heritage venue visitor data. The Practical Evaluation Guide by Judy Diamond, Jessica Luke and David Uttal is basic and accessible volume on the subject. Another resource is Reaching and Responding to the Audience, edited by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko and Stacy Klinger in Volume 4 of the six-volume Small Museum Toolkit published by the American Association of State and Local History through AltaMira Press.
You will notice that the resources I list are more representative of the museum field than archaeology. This is so because museums, by their very nature, have long been visitor-centered while the very concept of public archaeology was unheard of before the 1970s. However, as someone with a foot in each field, I find the above references quite useful in both realms.
What resources do you find most helpful in visitor evaluations?