Wednesday, April 30, 2008

CMA Conference, Victoria BC

Every year the Steering Committee puts some money into the budget for professional development, specifically through attending at least one conference. On April 7th I flew all the way to Victoria, BC for the Canadian Museum Association annual conference. The ensuing week was filled with informative sessions, networking opportunities with other museums and provincial associations, and a very fun study tour up Vancouver Island.

Following is a mini-review of the conference; information that I hope you will find interesting and helpful in your work. Information from some sessions has been combined for efficiency’s sake.

Keynote Address
The keynote was delivered by Dr. John Falk, co-author of Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions. He discussed the evolution of museum operations, beginning with the older "Industrial Age model", during which they existed to serve the masses in a "one size fits all" methodology with the focus being on the product rather than the customer. Information was delivered and success was measured by the number of visitors per season or year.

Dr. Falk then discussed the different kinds of people who visit museums, and what they expect from the experience. These can be very easily broken down into a few categories each.

What sells is not products but experiences. The public is seeking a personalized and knowledgeable learning experience of high quality.

  1. A true experience. With so many options available, especially to tourists, consumers are looking to satisfy and adapt things to their lifestyles and needs.
  2. Personalization. Goods now need to be customized to the needs and desires of the individual.
  3. Free-Choice Learning. Information, goods, and services that the public view as having the greatest value are those that support learning, especially free-choice learning.
  4. Expectations of Quality. Visitors expect the museum or organization to demonstrate that they are accomplishing their mission in fiscally, ethically, and socially responsible ways.

In terms of the different kinds of people who visit museums, instead of simply looking at demographics, Falk proposed that visitors seek to have identity-related needs met. These can be broken down into five groups.

  1. Explorers – motivated by personal curiousity.
  2. Facilitators – motivated by other people, ie. showing out-of-town friends/family the local attractions.
  3. Experience Seekers – motivated by a desire to see and experience a place
  4. Professional or Hobbyist – motivated by specific knowledge-related goals, ie. genealogy buffs
  5. Spiritual Pilgrims – motivated by a contemplative or restorative experience, ie. sitting and reflecting while looking at art works

The conclusions reached during the research phase of Dr. Falk and Ms. Sheppard’s work show that the public views museums as good places to satisfy a handful of specific leisure-related and identity-related needs. It also shows that when these needs are met visitors will return time and again either to relive or add to their initial experience. By meeting the needs of the individual, it will be much easier to customize marketing to attract niche groups, and to enhance communication with the general public.

Technology Trends in Museums
I attended several sessions on technological trends in museum work, which consisted of case studies and a review of emergent technology. Here’s what people are up to, and looking forward to:

  1. Scanners & Scanning. Over the past several years the optical recognition function on scanners has greatly improved, and museums/archives are taking advantage of this. This function allows documents to be turned into searchable pdf files, which can be viewed either online or in-house, minimizing the need to handle the item itself.
  2. Geotagging Objects. Geocaching and geotagging continues to grow in popularity, and motivates a niche market of tourists. Using Google maps and other open-source software, some museums have begun to map out their artifacts. This shows the history of the artifact by geographical area, tracking its travels from manufacture to its current home at the museum.
  3. RFID Chip. Using a wand, card, or ring, audio information is recorded that can then be activated using the RFID chip. Visitors can now personalize their visits by choosing their own audio guide from a variety of themes, and then scanning selected artifacts or exhibits that they want to hear more about. The information is available for download for a specific amount of time after their visit, allowing them to relive the experience and review information.
  4. Facebook. While this site is still viewed skeptically by many in the heritage field, it has over 80 million active users and is the 6th most visited website in the entire world. The Brooklyn Museum has created an application called ArtShare that allows cultural organizations and artists to share their collections with the public. Other museums are creating Facebook pages for their organizations as a free way to get their name out there and obtain feedback from visitors.
  5. Similarly, some museums have started to create a virtual presence for themselves on virtual community sites such as Second Life. While this began as an effort to enhance the institution’s public profile, it has evolved so that organizations are now adding games and applications, making it more interactive and inviting.

Engaging Youth
One of the topics on almost everyone’s lips at the conference was the problem of getting young people interested in museums. We are now living in an online and global community, which has resulted in many children losing their sense of space or geographic belonging. How can your museum fill this gap, provide a sense of belonging, and be an anchor in your community?

While there are many ways to encourage youth participation, here are some approaches that have worked for other museums.

  1. Involve them in your work, asking them to tell their stories. This means presenting contemporary information along with historical.
  2. Have a youth art showcase as a regular feature, and be willing to listen to and encourage them no matter how bizarre ideas may sound.
  3. Organize a youth focus group or forum. Engage them in the community and its history and they will want to share stories and information with the rest of the world. If you choose this approach, don’t limit yourself to dealing with the “good” kids. Not only will this skew your results, but it can also alienate other youth.
  4. Work with the local high school to create PDA presentations that can be used for museum and/or walking tours, or create plays about events in the community’s history.

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