Dear museums, treat your visitors as friends
There is often a discontinuity, even hierarchy, between curatorial and educational departments at museums that strains the communication between museum professionals and visitors.
Working together across departments to conceptualize and organize exhibitions and projects is not a new insight but one that seems to be still rarely practiced. Instead of developing educational programs as an addition to existing curatorial concepts, why not develop them jointly for greater success? Instead of informing your friends what’s for dinner, why not plan dinner together and be able to accommodate everyone?
While a historical elitist attitude has officially been left behind, some institutions cling to their responsibilities for objects and only have second thoughts for the people their institution is for. The changes in the role of museums in and for societies are evident in the revision of ICOM’s definition of museums. In comparison to the version from 2007, the newly suggested (still unapproved) definition from 2019 emphasizes the equal access for and attention to diverse audiences as well as a participatory orientation, working “in active partnership with and for diverse communities”.
However, claiming to be a place for people is insufficient for becoming one. There are several strategies to develop a more human centered institution. In this text I expand a suggestion made by Nicole Gesché-Koning: “Instead of seeing the museum visitors as strangers, guests or clients, why not see them just as our friends.” The following traits of friendship can be regarded in their possible application in museums: listen, be dependable – not dependent, give space, meet others at eye level, trust and support, be fun to be with/at.
The ability to listen is one of the most important in friendships. It shows empathy and care.
Further, it is easier to meet and anticipate a person’s wishes and needs when you know them. At museums, instead of speculating and projecting, it is highly rewarding to carry out visitor studies to get to know our (potential) audiences. Focus groups or external experts can test new programs or advice appropriate strategies to meet special needs. This makes it much easier to develop meaningful communication and activities to a project. With her best practice advice Eloísa Pérez Santos encourages museums to invest in the research and guides readers through the creation of visitor studies. Often forgotten, evaluation is just as insightful as feedback during conception. Again, listen to your visitors especially when they utter critique and take them seriously.
Be dependable – do not depend.
A good and strong relationship to our visitors turns them into museum’s ambassadors. Merely calling them our friends for donations, and forgetting about them otherwise, won’t. As in friendships, any dependencies or compromises are to be avoided – especially when money is involved.
Museums are spaces for possibilities and most successful as “providers of experiences”.
But Alexandra Irimia reminds us of an important detail: “The experience of the visitor is determined by the void he or she inhabits in the exhibition and the interaction with it.”
In interviews at three museums in Bilbao and Madrid in 2019, Iñigo Ayala, Maracena Cuenca-Amigo and Jaime Cuenca found out that visitors most often understand participation as agency limited to engagement with activities programmed by an institution. There are countless experiments on the surface, many utilizing technology, but the highest degree of participation, co-creation, is either not practiced or invisible.
Meet your visitors at eye level.
To become truly “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic” spaces, many institutions still have some way to go. Inclusion and accessibility are immensely used buzzwords. However, there are numerous inspirational projects that we can learn from. Useful case studies for people with special needs can be found in Vincenzo Vela Museum’s (Switzerland) project with visually impaired persons and undergraduate students, Venancio Blanco Foundation’s (Spain) language invention by people with Asperger syndrome and communication difficulties, or the inclusive tours at the memorial to the victims of euthanasia murders in Brandenburg/Havel. The advantages of education and communication formats in dialogues, not monologues, are evident.
Trust and support.
Trust is a relationship accelerator. For museums, this means to entrust visitors with agency. One inspiring example is Museum of Ixelles’ “Art at Home” . Here, the closed museum undergoing refurbishment loans pieces from its collection to neighbors who exhibit one work each for a weekend at their home. Museum professional act only as supporters. The hosts decide on the setting and develop an individual communication strategy. The dedication and creativity with which the temporary art collectors prepare their weekend with the artwork exemplifies the growth possible on trust.
Be fun to be with/at.
At home, you would want your friends to feel comfortable and provide the ability for them to make the most of their time with you. Keeping this in sight, the way knowledge is transmitted is just as important as the facts and data. When conducting research museums should without doubt follow the highest scientific standards. But what use is it if only a fraction of your visitors comprehends your communication? Instead of abandoning an academic approach altogether an already practiced alternative is to offer several versions of a text – translations in big script or easy language for example. Finding an apt solution is where the expertise of our pedagogy colleagues is crucial. We cannot expect any miracles and since time is always running out, it is even more important to get these professionals on board as soon as possible. Being engaging, enjoyable, humorous and empathetic while following an educational commitment is an enormous task.
The goal should be to involve the largest possible audience with our collected objects, stories and experiences. It is a challenge to convince diverse publics and people that museums are spaces for all of them equally. Regardless, museums – and their employees – should not aim for less than to become meaningful players of civil society. Approaching our visitors as friends could be a helpful strategy.
 As example, the Städel Museum’s art and museum education space Close Up was developed jointly by the Department of Museum Education and Department of Contemporary Art: https://www.staedelmuseum.de/en/exhibitions/back-present [Accessed 29.10.2020]
 The suggested, but until today not approved definition from 2019 states: “Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Even in the ICOM definition of museums from 2007 people were at the center of the activities, not objects: “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” https://icom.museum/en/resources/standards-guidelines/museum-definition/ [Accessed 29.10.2020]
 Nicole Gesché-Koning (2020). Accessible Museums: Vision or Reality. In: Socializing Art Museums. Rethinking the Publics’ Experience. Eds. Alejandra Alonso Tak, Ángel Pazos-López., p.153.
 Eloísa Pérez Santos (2020). Best Practices in Visitors Studies. In: Socializing Art Museums. Rethinking the Publics’ Experience. Eds. Alejandra Alonso Tak, Ángel Pazos-López.
 https://www.vulture.com/2019/07/artists-withdrawing-from-whitney-biennial-over-kanders.html [Accessed 29.10.2020]
 Alejandra Alonso Tak and Ángel Pazos-López (2020). To open art museums to a more social approach. An introduction. In: Socializing Art Museums. Rethinking the Publics’ Experience. Eds. Alejandra Alonso Tak, Ángel Pazos-López, p. 12.
 Alexandra Irimia (2020). Museums of the Void. In: Socializing Art Museums. Rethinking the Publics’ Experience. Eds. Alejandra Alonso Tak, Ángel Pazos-López.
 Iñigo Ayala, Maracena Cuenca-Amigo and Jaime Cuenca (2020). Transformations in Museums from the Audience’s Perception. In: Socializing Art Museums. Rethinking the Publics’ Experience. Eds. Alejandra Alonso Tak, Ángel Pazos-López.
 ICOM definition of museums, 2019
 Marta Pucciarelli, Luca Morici and Jean-Pierre Candeloro (2020). Close your Eyes and Open your Mind. A Practice-Based Experiment of Cultural Mediation for Visually Impaired People. In: Socializing Art Museums. Rethinking the Publics’ Experience. Eds. Alejandra Alonso Tak, Ángel Pazos-López.
 María Victoria Martín Cilleros and Miguel Elías Sánchez Sánchez (2020). The Museum as a Space for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome of Higher Functioning Autism. In: Socializing Art Museums. Rethinking the Publics’ Experience. Eds. Alejandra Alonso Tak, Ángel Pazos-López.
 https://www.brandenburg-euthanasie-sbg.de/en/educational-services/inclusive-services-by-people-with-learning-difficulties-for-people-with-and-without-learning-difficulties/ [Accessed 29.10.2020]
 http://www.museumofixelles.irisnet.be/museum-in-progress/musee-comme-chez-soi-1?set_language=en [Accessed 29.10.2020]