Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 4: Reaching and Responding to the Audience

Round 4! Reaching and Responding to the Audience

This one has 6 chapters that address marketing & communication, visitor studies & evaluation, community advocacy, accessibility, visitor services, and finally new opportunities in community engagement.

Some people may not expect it, but in the first chapter about marketing & communications a decent amount of time is spent talking about the museum's identity. If you don't have a solid sense of self, it can be difficult to explain your activities to the public. The other lesson in this chapter is the need to identify affinity groups. We return to this point time and time again - collaboration, partnership, cooperation...these are not just buzz words. This is the reality of contemporary museum work. Looking for potential partners and interest groups helps to build your audience, develop new stakeholders and advocates, and builds relationships with potential partners.
One of the nice little text boxes in this chapter talks about establishing brand identity. So many community museums are lacking in this area. Be succinct, convey your uniqueness, use a standard & easy-to-read font in your communications, get a logo designed that will work online & offline, on t-shirts and postcards and receipts and websites...flexibility and aesthetics count. Also, I know it's tempting to come up with clever little tag lines, but be careful with these. I can think of a couple that actually sound contrary to museum work, although I'm sure the museum board thought they wrote something fun.
Another helpful section is the one on public relations. This is not my area of expertise, and isn't something that gets a lot of attention in museum school. The author's advice on how to best share media releases and take advantage of the various advertising options is much-needed.

We've been talking a lot about visitor statistics and really using the information garnered, and that's what chapter 2 is all about. I think I've said this already in reference to an earlier book in the series, but I appreciate the brutal honesty of this series. This is very true for the visitor studies chapter. It provides talking points for convincing sceptical colleagues of the importance of this work and gives tips on how to get useful, accurate info from your visitors.

I hate to admit it, but the chapter on community advocacy got off to a rocky start for me. It begins with the statement "community service is essential any small museum", and I disagree with this. It isn't essential, it is why we exist. If you don't exist as a community service, then what on earth are you doing? The author rallied a bit though and went on to make some very valuable remarks on "being a good neighbour". I love the statement that "becoming a strong advocate within the local community is not just about promoting your small museum or historic site as an engaging venue" because. I think this has often been the motivation for community involvement and can end up doing more harm than good. We need to stop thinking about what we might gain and remind ourselves that we exist to improve our community, however that is best achieved.
One of the key points in this chapter is community communication. This means having conversations. I love what one director had to say, "what we realized is that the only way our museum can survive is to not ust look back, but to look forward as well". She doesn't just mean collecting modern objects. She means looking to the future of the community as a whole.

Back on the plus side, there is an entire chapter devoted to making the museum more accessible to people with mobility, hearing, vision, or other issues. It walks you through the process of conducting a site audit focusing on these issues. While some of the points about wheelchair accessibility and parking are well known and understood, it delves into many other areas, from exhibit text font & type size, to lighting, tours, the gift shop, and even your marketing efforts. I also really like that the author points out that every museum can improve on accessibility. No excuses. It doesn't matter how small you are or what kind of building you are in. There are some great tips for addressing specific issues, such as hearing and vision impairments, and then in the resources section a list of checklists that you can refer to as another means of assessing your offerings.

The book finishes off with a chapter by our good friend Candace Tangorra Matelic. She makes a great case for this shift and explains it very succinctly; "new roles for museums emerge through honestly engaging the community, discovering what the community cares about, working with other organizations to address community needs, and rediscovering the spirit or passions that uniquely define each individual small museums". One of my favourite things about this chapter is the neat little table that talks about what is and what is not community engagement. This serves as a great check-in when you're planning activities, and gives suggestions on which areas need improvement. For institutions that have never delved into this work, there is another nice table that gives you some basic ideas on how to work toward community engagement - baby steps that you can work through as an organization. Honestly, I think that if you were to only read one chapter in this book, it should be this chapter.

One of the nice things about these books is that they include a lot of case studies from a wide variety of museums. It's a lot easier to understand a theory when you can see it put into practice. I've learned about a lot of 'new' places and museums by reading these books, and have drawn comparisons between them and a number of Nova Scotian museums.

Reviews of other books in the series can be found here:
Book 1: Leadership, Mission & Governance
Book 2: Financial Resource Development and Management
Book 3: Organizational Management
Book 5: Interpretation: Education, Programs, and Exhibits
Book 6: Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

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