Engaging Visitors: What they didn’t know they wanted? - by Matthew Tanner

A challenge to the new curator: “Create a gallery exhibition on Marine Insurance” they said. It’s a terribly important story that underpins many significant developments in the story of world maritime trade, and hence of world cultural history itself. 

Where to start? We all usually start with the research. There is some literature on this subject. Lots of stories of risk and reward, wrecks and skulduggery, and winners and losers. All good material for writing a strong and worthy narrative for it, perhaps with several graphic “break-out” bubbles for key points of interest or amusing facts and figures. The text could go straight to the designer now, but just exactly how does this story really come to life for a general audience? 

It is not clear. For Marine Insurance is a worthy story but scant in imagery, and almost non-existent in meaningful objects. The answer surely is that not every story can come to life through the “museum” medium. Why insist on telling the story whatever its paucity of illustrative material? The Marine Insurance story deserves to be where it was found – in a good book. It may seem an obvious point to some, but it is one that bears repeating. Not every story however interesting, controversial or even politically required can be brought to life in a museum.

So how can we identify those stories that can come to life, and those that can light up the faces and minds of our diverse museum audiences? It is a commonplace that the stories contained within and stimulated by real objects should typically soar within a museum context. Objects are brim full of stories to tell – because it is not the stories that make the objects, but the objects that make the stories; and in a manner that seems unique to the museum medium. Objects, real objects, provide tangible links between the present and the past. They are authentic and have an integrity that is sustained in a world where the differences between myth and truth are often mixed up by presentation and spin. Shoe-horning an object into a story created from the prior assumptions of political correctness or financial need can be an ugly thing to perceive. 

The tangible authenticity of real objects is of genuine importance in engaging with the visiting public. Visitors like it. That is why they want to visit and why they want to touch, and touch they should as far as possible commensurate with the fragility of the object. They cannot get this kind of experience in any other way. Many great houses are ruined for their visitors by the over-flowing surfeit of “Do Not Touch” signs, many unnecessary, and all strongly serving to put their visitors in their place as merely uninitiated amateurs in an increasingly private and professional world. Some car museums restore, repaint, and polish their collections to brilliance, but will not tolerate the casual stroke of a hand along a finely-faired bonnet, despite the lack of apparent material damage of any kind. Rope barriers, and watchful guards ensure we must remain voyeurs only.

Great objects are the ones that shout out to their viewers and feelers. They have a “wow” factor that should be sought out as the first and primary element of any good exhibition. It is the Diplodocus skeleton in the atrium of the Natural History Museum in London, it is the Anglo-Saxon helmet/mask from Sutton Hoo in the British Museum, the Vasa in her grand hall in Stockholm, the Silver Swan automaton at the Bowes Museum, and Brunel’s ss Great Britain in Bristol. There are of course many more to be found, all linked by a sense of excitement, memorability, and uniqueness. Many good curators were drawn to the profession upon seeing such “wows”, and many good exhibitions rightly hang upon these as their centrepieces.

And for every obviously “wow” object, there are many potentials – each waiting for a good curator to draw them out, to illuminate for others just why they are interesting and important. Some things are dusty and worn, others merely look superficially dull, and easy to overlook. The brightly painted gypsy caravan in Bristol Museum hides its glories inside itself. The personal letters of Roman soldiers serving on Hadrian’s Wall require expert interpretation, yet are amazing to all once the key turns in the lock.

Turning that key is the goal of great interpretation. Great interpretation serves to connect the object and its stories to its audience. It is a system of translation that delivers illumination, but it has important hurdles to cross. It must firstly address a core question from the audience – why bother? Why should we spend time and energy engaging with this object/exhibition/museum at all? Is it going to be too much like hard work or even like school? It is easy to point a finger at some art museums that appear to prize minimalist interpretation over understanding and explication. There are many examples from the Elgin Marbles to many smaller galleries and posh houses from Kent to Cumbria. It seems that if you are not already inducted into the “club” - educated in a nice middle class school, then your lack of understanding or appreciation of what is on show is your own look out.

One common solution to break through to the audience, and widely praised because it works, is to utilise first person interpretation. The retired trawlermen showing groups round the trawler Ross Tiger in Grimsby was a powerful experience at the former National Fishing Heritage Centre. They brought a uniquely dangerous occupation to life by the enthusiasm and authenticity of their voices and gestures in front of the visitor. Yet these voices will not be available forever. Oral history recordings must be taken now, but the immediacy of their stories is very difficult to sustain once their creators are no more. A human being enthusing in front of a small audience about something that surprises and which they can touch, hear, see and smell or even taste is marvellous and engaging. So how can this be carried through to reach audiences? Even the simple guided tour is valuable, whether by volunteer or paid staff. Seductive is the road along which lie actors and other costumed interpreters. However, the pitfalls are manifest – the fees associated with professional actors increase the running costs significantly and the actors are therefore often retained only on high days and holidays. What does this mean for the humble visitor on a wet Wednesday in March? Is it right that they should receive a second class experience, or even an experience that becomes de facto inaccessible without the live interpreter on hand? Volunteer-led guided tours are an absolute minimum if they can be genuinely sustained both in quantity and in quality.

Objects that have neither the privilege of their maker or user on hand to talk about them, or articulate guides to illuminate them must be made to work much harder to tell their stories. They must be made to address the visitor question – why should I bother to look at this? Perhaps an understanding of the some more obvious motivations to visit is important? Why do visitors want to view the museum? Perhaps they are just filling in time – an idle moment? More probably they are with visiting friends or relatives. Not only must the visit be educational and fun, but it must also be capable of impressing and amusing their friends. The answer sometimes consists of three parts: (i)The visit has intrinsic value because what it has to show seems important for human culture and history; (ii) The visit provides an educational experience; and (iii) It sparks the imagination, and makes us feel differently. In such cases it is always fun, memorable, sometimes moving, and potentially repeatable. It is the point iii that seems most powerful.

So we must tell a story. Create a narrative around and from every object, case or gallery. At every level there is something to say that answers one or more of the above questions in a memorable way. If it proves elusive, then perhaps the object may not really belong at all in the story or the gallery.

Telling stories and being memorable requires engagement with an audience. Often it seems that the burden is placed upon the listener/viewer/feeler to engage if they want to. Sticking too rigidly only to an intellectual learning process can make it difficult, not because of a lack of learning or education in the audience, but a lack of incentive – perhaps it seems too much like hard work to the visitor. To engage often means utilising a variety of learning processes – in particular combining an intellectual element with something moving and emotional. Emotive learning is very powerful in drawing a human dimension to an intellectual understanding – it answers both “what was this for?” and “what did this feel like?” An obvious example of powerful use of emotion to enhance engagement and learning is the Holocaust gallery at the Imperial War Museum. Much more simple but not much less moving is the Memorial Room at the Scottish Fisheries Museum. Brass plaques around all the walls bear witness to the lives of many individual fishermen lost at sea in the course of their hazardous industry. Emotional engagement does not always have to be quite so powerful to be effective.

Clear separation between intellectual and emotive learning styles has been very effective at the ss Great Britain. A more formal intellectual learning experience in the Dockyard Museum sets up the audience before a generally immersive and emotive experience on board the ship, rarely interrupted by modern paraphernalia or technological intrusions. Sounds and smells and touch are the dominant activities, and the sequential combination of intellect and emotion seems to give everyone something to which they can relate.
Human scale and human frailties can stand alongside great triumphs and achievements. No longer do we admire from afar, but wonder too whether we might have been there or done the same. Often it is effective to travel from the known to the unknown. From something that is familiar and commonly known to the unknown and strange. It is a process not of meeting expectations, but of going beyond them – giving the audience what they didn’t know they wanted.

Perhaps a good illustration of the latter point is the standard assumption in maritime museums and historic ships that ships should be displayed afloat – after all that is the medium for which they were designed. However, the point is flawed. Probably the one thing that all potential visitors do actually know about a ship is that she is designed to float. By providing a ship afloat the museum may be showing the already very obvious, and in the process losing the opportunity to display and give access below the waterline – the very part that is usually unknown to a general audience.

Sometimes the emotive and immersive approach to interpretation is dismissed as merely some kind of “Disneyfication”. On the one hand this disparaging remark may in fact be a compliment. Disney Corporation provides a very well thought through and consistently high-quality experience to its visitors that many museums would find difficult to match. On the other hand museums have the huge advantage over Disney in having real objects with real stories to tell. So why not steal some good ideas in story-telling? Telling the stories of museum objects with alarming honesty and strict integrity often surprises and engages an audience. Furthermore the honest and open approach often gives a sense of depth and substance to the museum approach much lacking in the otherwise immersive Disneyland. Unlike Disney, but using Disney techniques, the reassurance and familiarity of nostalgia and recognition should lead through to the new and surprising and the eye-opening all based around the real thing.

Perhaps the most effective and useful emotional hook to public engagement, and unsurprisingly used by Disney too, is the use of fun and humour. Immediate frowns sometimes appear – is a laugh and a joke compatible with our serious purpose? Our serious purpose requires a laugh and a joke, or their equivalent, to connect with and open up the audience. HM McLuhan famously pointed out “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” So a learning experience must also a be fun and enjoyable one. Few people are not susceptible to humour of one kind or another – it’s a ready engagement of emotion that makes people feel good, and a ready way into a good museum experience.

And the delivery of a good museum experience is alloyed with humour. Great museums are often places that dare to be different, that seek to surprise and not follow the herd, and humour and emotion makes them accessible. So, the intellectual exercise for the curators is not a post-modernist dance about the equivalence of multiple meanings in objects, but about the thoughtful unlocking of the stories that should shout to their viewers.

So why do all museums not follow this formula? Perhaps Nina Simon recently told a few home truths (Museum Identity magazine #05). Too many museums are content to follow the herd and aim merely to be orthodox. This is not a process of “dumbing down” but rather more one of “dulling down”. General practice is often standardised by the narrowing and professionalisation of the work force, and perhaps most of all by the ill-considered drift towards using a relatively small number of external design firms rather than in-house curatorial and design experience. The result seems to be a homogenised product seen in many places. External design agents find it hard to discover the wit and wisdom contained within a museum staff that can bring a display to light, and obviously their commercial agenda is different. Museums need to surprise not conform. Surprise usually comes from within. The expertise of the curators, researchers, volunteers and interpreters is invaluable and relevant, if unfashionable. For the in-house team can often be more in tune with the museum’s own audience, existing and potential. Furthermore they are far more intimate with the collections. A post-modern trend towards valuing a huge number of different interpretations of each object doesn’t really cut much ice in the straightforward transaction between the museum and its visitor looking for entertainment and education. That level of hypothetical intellectualism should be retained solely for those museums more concerned with curating for their peers and professional critics, rather than for a real and general audience.

Seeking to understand that audience, and segmenting them according to their motivations for visiting and experiencing a museum remain vital. Building knowledge of visitors of all shades is always illuminating, even if it serves only to reinforce existing convictions and viewpoints. Estimates at the ss Great Britain that the provision of one particular strand of very technical and esoteric information was old-fashioned and unwanted proved entirely wrong. Nearly 20% of the repeat audience were pleased to opt for a more detailed exposition of iron engineering when estimates suggested it would be 2-6% at most.

Often that has led us to seek the safety of simply asking the audience what they want. How can this go wrong? The visitor as curator seems the perfect foil to any criticism of paternalism or elitist viewpoints. Yet asking the visitor what they want does rather rely upon the notion that the visitor knows, in a more than very vague manner, what they do want. Furthermore, there is a curious tension between a visitor knowing what they want, letting the museum know, and then not visiting after all since they already know now what is on offer! Surprise and unorthodoxy must remain – let us celebrate idiosyncrasy.

Whichever way this is approached the need for an honest-to-good professional curator at the top of their game remains as the essential mediator. Without them, and they have certainly become scarce, visitor involvement has become toothless and more like reality TV than a great documentary. Give them what they didn’t know they wanted. This is no intellectual arrogance or autocratic hauteur but derived from genuine creativity in communicating stories and desire to teach as they desire to learn, and be entertained.

Matthew Tanner MBE - Director, Brunel’s ss Great Britain, Bristol