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What Museums Can Learn From Hotel Chains

August 20, 2012

I started off this morning reading Debbie Morrison’s excellent post The End of ‘School’ as Usual . . .  on her blog online learning insights.  The first sentence of her post brought to mind some points I have been thinking about lately.  She wrote “Applying business principles to academia at one time was taboo. Mentioning terms such as return on investment (ROI), customer focus,target market, would be met with blank looks – the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome.”  This got me to thinking about another interesting discussion of late by Suse Cairns at the Museum Geek blog who posted Are We Engaged Yet . . . that takes up the real nuts and bolts behind the concept of what it means to “engage” in our cultural heritage institutions.

As a museum junkie, I reflected how over the past year or so in traveling across North America, I visited about 100 different cultural heritage venues, mostly museums.  In those travels, I stayed in hotels on perhaps 50 evenings.  As a result of those hotel stays, I received follow-up email surveys asking me to rate my experience or join a frequent user club.  However, I don’t recollect ever receiving a follow-up email from a museum asking me to rate my experience or asking for feedback.  I don’t recollect seeing a visitor comment card inside a museum in the past year, but I know they exist.  I am certain some museums do ask for feedback like the hotel chains.  However, that I did not experience a museum request in the past year likely reflects more the norm.

Having written the above, I do not want to suggest that cultural heritage specialists are not interested in what the public wants or needs from the publicly funded institutions. We discuss this issue a lot.  I do think we need to take a different approach toward acquiring that information.  Consider the following examples:

  • Each fall for the past two years at the C.H. Nash Museum, in our weekly meetings with regular staff and graduate assistants from the University of Memphis, we discuss one chapter from Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences.  I really like the way this book with it’s 5-page or so chapters and lots of questions/exercises covers a broad range of topics such as finding your niche as an institution, signage, service, and more – lots of good things to think about.  One of my favorite exercises is a simple SWOT type analysis of listing 10 institutional strengths and weaknesses that the museum has some control over.  Last year, we took a new approach to this listing activity.  Instead of just checking the task off as a weekly book chapter done, we returned in the following weeks to consider how the strengths and weaknesses were addressed by our mission, vision and strategic plan.  We decided to return to the list regularly to see how we were doing.  Were we living into our strengths?  Were we addressing our weaknesses?  But in thinking about two blog posts above, I realize we also need to consider what our visitors think are our greatest strengths and weaknesses.  We will take up that challenge this fall.
  •  Flowing from the above,  as a staff, we spend a good bit of time discussing visitor wants and needs as they relate to our mission.  To that end, in 2011 we conducted an electronic survey of the nearly 2000 subscribers to our monthly e-newsletter, Chucalissa Anoachi.  Despite our staff discussions, the survey revealed several key points that we had never considered. First, 60% of the survey respondents wanted the Museum to develop more programming and activities in our 40 acres of exterior space consisting of prehistoric earthworks and wooded areas.  Second, by the same percentage, respondents wanted us to deliver more of our Museum content online.  Third, 40% of our respondents wanted to have volunteer opportunities they could do from their homes or online.  All three of these responses fall well within our institutional mission and are very doable.  However, none of the areas received priority attention until after we actually asked and heard directly from our visitors.
  • Our Museum is in dire need of updating and revising our 20 – 30-year-old main hall exhibits.  Over the past few years, we worked on a few exhibits as skills and resources were available.  However, we also knew that we needed to stand back and take a look at the total picture of the main hall project.  Based on the success of our e-newsletter survey, as a next step in the upgrade project, we carried out a series of focus groups and interviews with a broad range of our Museum’s constituencies and stakeholders.  We were pleasantly surprised at the results.  Over the next five years, as we work through the upgrade process, we will have greater confidence in meshing visitor needs and wants with our mission.

There are at least two different approaches to engage the visitor.  We can start from our mission and try to sell our vision to the public.  Alternatively, we can first seek out the public vision and mesh that vision with our mission.  As educators, museum professionals, and cultural heritage specialists, we need to abandon the mindset that “if we build it, they will come” if what we build is not relevant to the needs and wants of the public that we serve.

How do you make your institution relevant to the visitors you serve?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2012 12:29 am

    Thank you for this great blog post! You have a lot of wonderful practical advice here about how to start thinking of visitor experience without necessarily spending any money–just spending some time. I’ve found that it always gets everyone reinvigorated too, if staff is involved in an honest conversation about how to expand the audience for their daily hard work.

    It’s funny how you talk about visitor followup. This same issue was addressed this week on Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog: http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/08/whats-string-that-ties-one-experience.html

    I hope that you’ll let us know if you end up following up with your visitors, and keep us posted on your outreach efforts–I really am inspired by them!

  2. August 21, 2012 1:45 am

    Catherine,

    Thanks for your comments. This whole issue is something that I am getting more keenly interested in. I know we spend a tremendous amount of time talking about engaging visitors. Check the recent book edited by Bill Adair et al called Letting Go (has a great article by Nina Simon as well). There is all of this engagement going on, but where are the ideas coming from?

    I used an example a couple of weeks ago – we were doing focus groups to help direct the redesign of exhibits in our main hall. Mallory, the Graduate Assistant who led the focus group with members of the local neighborhood association noted that the participants were less interested in talking about the exhibit hall, but were very interested in finding a place to grow a traditional vegetable garden that would not be vandalized. We are located on 40 acres of land, much of which is under-utilized but in a protected environment. Fast forward a few months, we have lots of organic okra, greens, and other vegetables growing that the members of the neighborhood association planted, hoe, weed, and water with the agreement that they will do a presentation in the fall around traditional foods of the area. A huge win for everyone. The community has a place to grow food. We are of service to the community. The museum and community are mutually relevant to each other. Without that focus group, our staff could have sat and thought about engaging with the community long and hard, and we likely never would have hit on the traditional vegetable garden.

  3. Randy Parker permalink
    September 1, 2012 9:08 pm

    I just visited Chucalissa today, the first time since I was a kid. Back then there were the huts and, of course, the bones! My overall impression today is that there is just a lack “experience.” If the trench could be reopened that might help (although I don’t know what can actually be observed there). I know money is always a problem, but even the old houses made it seem more like a village, gave it a little life, a bit of structure. I saw an older post here about virtual museums. To me, the main difference is the physical experience. A physical museum, especially one of an historic nature, literally puts you in a place in a way photos can’t. The experience of place is extremely important. At Chucalissa, you are really THERE. And yet, the museum exhibits could just as easily be at the University. I guess what I’m trying to say (and not particularly well) is I felt a need for more interaction with the site itself, to somehow experience it more, whether the focus be on the Native American culture or on archeology, itself.

    That said, thanks to everyone for keeping it open and going. I know that it has never been easy. I’d love to see any “if we only had the money” visions for Chucalissa that may exist.

    • September 2, 2012 12:03 am

      Randy,

      Thanks for visiting the C.H. Nash Museum today and for your comments. We are actively addressing several of the issues that you raised. For example, on October 20th, National Archaeology Day, we will premier the residential complex of a replica prehistoric house and associated activity areas. Preliminary testing for the house began this past week and will be completed in the next month by the AmeriCorps Delta 9 Team we are currently hosting. Over the past several years we have revised all of our programming and created a new hands-on archaeology lab, along with many other new offerings. This past Saturday night at our annual staff/volunteer appreciation dinner we laid out an aggressive schedule for exhibit and program upgrades over the next five years. As noted in the above blog post, over the past five years we have accomplished much, but also realize there is much work that remains. When visiting us in the coming years, you will see our progress as we continue to live into our mission of education and service to the Memphis community and beyond.

      • Randy Parker permalink
        September 2, 2012 12:19 am

        Yes! The residential complex sounds like just the thing. Thanks for your response and your efforts.

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