Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Does an events-driven museum = a low-impact museum?

I don't have fully-formed thoughts on this one yet, but I have been thinking a great deal about events and programs and their place in a museum in the last few weeks. This line of thought was kicked off by this guest post on Museum 2.0 about community events at museums, and then brought to the forefront by my exciting new job at the Vermont Historical Society.

I've long believed that transformative, community-based events at museums can be incredible catalysts for connecting people to museums and their collections. Many people who would never come through the door for "another exhibit full of old stuff" will be lured in by a creative, fun program. The tour-de-force of the Minnesota Historical Society's AAM event - Beer, Burlesque, and Babe (the Blue Ox) - utterly carried me away and made me want to duplicate its quirky, fun, involved atmosphere in other museums.

The philosophy of the events-driven museum was laid forward by Nina Simon in this post originally, and then given a one year update here. She provides some pretty compelling evidence for the audience and revenue benefits of events at museums. I'm not sure I will follow her as far as the idea that events should entirely drive a museum - rather than collections, exhibitions, and a solid education program - but I find many pieces of the idea compelling.

Recently, Reach Advisors threw a monkey wrench into all my thinking and reading about events in museums with this blog post on finding meaning in museums. They found, fairly conclusively, that an overwhelming number of positive, transformative experiences in museums happened in exhibits and galleries - not during programs or events, and not even during direct interaction with staff in galleries. The comments on the post bring up some of my initial questions, and Susie Wilkening answers them effectively - in short, there isn't a "terms bias" here; visitors simply described their experience, and Reach Advisors then coded based on the context and description. (In other words, it's not that visitors couldn't tell the difference between an exhibition and an event.)

So where do we go from here? Does this provide a way to more closely tailor programming to provide lasting, meaningful experiences? Does this mean that programs have a short-term impact only? Does this mean that programming should really ultimately serve as an introduction to the museum galleries and exhibits? Do you think there's more meaning yet to parse from these results?

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