Museums: from Appealing to Essential

Sometimes museums get caught up in strategizing how to be attractive (or interesting, or relevant) to their audiences when a more helpful framing of the problem would be to ask what can make them more essential.

What’s the difference?

Imagine a library closure: parents scrambling for expensive school books, job seekers struggling to access their applications, anyone who doesn’t own a computer blocked from checking their email. Devastating, right? Now imagine if your museum was to close–would the impact be as critical? The volume of complaints you can expect to receive reflects your institution’s attractiveness, whereas the gravity of the complaints reflects its essentialness.

Unlike libraries, most museums aren’t inherently essential to their communities. Instead, they focus on attracting visitors in order to compete with other community spaces for attention and revenue. But is it really too ambitious to think that these museums could become essential to their communities if that was their primary goal?

Tips for becoming essential

Connect to local issues. I like to picture a state or regional museum that gets its inspiration from local news. In this example, the newspapers tell us that our county has had a critical shortage of nurses since the pandemic. The regional museum responds by producing an exhibition that investigates the topic–how and why did this problem come to be? Why is it worse in our county than in neighboring ones? What do current and former nurses in the area have to say about the issue? Going beyond what the newspaper coverage could offer, the museum offers artifacts that provide supporting evidence, programming bringing in subject matter experts who speak about the issue from all sides, community organizers who connect and rally visitors to advocate for change, medics who train people on first aid they can do at home to relieve strain on hospital ERs, and so on. The museum has now become the place where anyone can come together to help solve this crisis in their community.

Lean into what makes your take unique. How might a science museum that wants to do an exhibition on climate change think about making it more essential to visitors? The topic itself is essential, but what would make the museum a critical part of the visitor’s engagement with the topic–that is, what can the museum provide for visitors that they can’t already get on the internet or someplace else?

One option would be to offer hands-on learning activities that give personalized feedback. Urban gardening is a great practice for sustainability, but some people will need an in-person tutorial to get started. Most people know they should recycle, but how many feel confident in their ability to sort their recycling correctly? The museum could test visitors’ sorting accuracy via an interactive and give them suggestions for how to improve. Perhaps they could also show a model of what environmental impact each visitor’s specific errors would have over a set period of time if not corrected.

Collaborate with community problem-solvers. As an aficionado of pet rabbits, I once had an opportunity to rethink a petting zoo at a science center. My proposal for the rabbit exhibit included partnering with local animal shelters to house adoptable rabbits in indoor playpens that visitors could enter for supervised one-on-one socialization. There could also be craft activities for visitors to make toys for the rabbits out of recycled paper and cardboard. These minor changes would preserve the function and appeal of the original petting zoo while adding an essential solution to real community problems (uninformed people dump their pets, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems, and shelters get overcrowded and under-resourced in their ability to supply enrichment). Plus the museum would gain a permanent place in the hearts of any adopters who happened to meet their new family member through their experience visiting. Being essential makes you more attractive to visitors, but not necessarily the other way around.

Brown rabbit in a rectangular play pen with clear sides. Playpen has carpeted flooring, a litter box, a hay feeder, and a pet bed.
Wouldn’t you rather visit a rabbit here than in a traditional petting zoo? And it’s better for the bunny. Image courtesy of Blue Clover Rabbitry

So if you haven’t already, try asking yourself of your current project, “How can this help my museum be more essential to its audiences?” I’d love to hear about whether or not it was a helpful exercise for unlocking new ideas.

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