Tuesday, May 19, 2009

If a museum program falls in the woods...

I snapped this picture yesterday as I was picking up dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant. The store next door had these two signs in the front window, and it struck me as a little bit funny. Here is a great free service being offered to the public-- free hearing tests, but perhaps in a place not many people would expect to find that service-- at an optical center.

How often do we, in the museum world do the very same thing? How many times have you developed a great program designed to meet a specific and important need in your community, only to find that it was underutilized, and more often than not, ultimately set aside in favor of some more popular program?

Perhaps we are a bit like Shoregate Optical here. Our hearts are in the right place, but we are not seen by our target audience as the logical place to look for the programs or services they need. So, this begs the obvious question that so many museums I know are struggling with, "How do we get our community to see us as a resource, not simply a destination?" How do we let the public beyond our own members, in on the wealth of educational programs and services we provide day in and day out? After all, even the very best, grant-funded, well-staffed, strategic-planned program is only as good as the impact it has in the hearts, minds and lives of its participants. How do we reach the masses to let them know what we offer and moreover, how do we remain relevant in this age of virtual experience?

I am not sure that anyone has a silver bullet answer to all of these difficult questions, but I can offer my own simple, if somewhat obvious, suggestion. You must find your audience and then go to them. I am not a big believer in the "if-you-build-it-they-will-come" theory. Maybe it works for baseball ghosts, but if you would like to reach actual people, I believe you must reach out to them where they are. Senior centers, libraries, churches, and the YMCA all frequently host guest speakers for their special programs, offering potential opportunities to connect with new segments of the community you are attempting to serve. Don't just leave a stack of flyers on a desk somewhere either. Make a personal connection to your audience by meeting them on their turf and telling them yourself why they should come to your museum.

Perhaps you are already reaching out to folks at the places I just mentioned, and instead you say you want more people between the ages of 18 and 28 to take an interest in your museum and ultimately visit? OK, does your museum have a Facebook page? Are you on Twitter? Do you post a blog chronicling your latest programs, collections, exhibits, and other news? If not, did you know that you can do all of these things for free and reach millions of tech-savvy folks young and old who troll the internet looking for little nuggets of news just like yours?

One of the toughest things for any of us to do is to look at ourselves through someone else's eyes. However, if we are going to spend valuable time, energy, and funds producing a new program or exhibit, perhaps the most important thing we can do is take a good a look at what we are planning and determine whether or not we might be offering free hearing exams at a vision center. If so, but it seems justifiable to meet a community need with the program, exhibit, or service you are planning to provide, then decide how you will get the word out to those who could benefit most. After all, if a museum program is planned and no one hears about it, does actually make an impact?

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