Engaging audiences: rethinking “difference”

Steam power

I’m blogging from the Co-Curation and the Public History of Science & Technology conference at the Science Museum (picture is of an exhibit)

Saturday’s programme started with a “provocation” (or keynote talk) entitled “New Ways to engage people” from Andrew Pekarik of the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis.

Pekarik is an exceedingly smooth speaker. He rolled off lines about the need to not only “see difference” in audiences but also “be that difference”: to embody such difference within the curatiorial team. To “See it, be it, and then use it too”. To use this difference in content, but also use it in determining display. Moreover, they need to follow this all up by testing the difference. That such testing should be about checking a team’s work, but also a way to identify new differences. As Pekarik concluded, this should become a continual cycle; one that is more important than any step individually.

All lovely sounding stuff, but what do we mean by “difference” here? What of the many possible differences are they looking for?

Answer: between “people people”, “object people” and those who are more “ideas people”. Pekarik noted most curators aren’t really “people people”, they are drawn to the job precisely because they like books and objects, and talked enthusiastically about a process of bringing in “people people” from other areas of the museum. For me, such a categorisation of “people, object or ideas” “people” didn’t ring true. Moreover, it seemed like a distraction from more important differences (class, ethnicity, gender, age).

A couple of senior Science Museum staff picked up on this in questions. One suggested that these three categories are just a 1st step which ends with 2.7 million forms of difference (i.e. as in 2.7 unique visitors). Another flagged up the difference between those who like hands-on experiences at museum. She also raised concern over Pekarik’s starting point of asking people about their most meaningful museum experience. What about people who never have museum experiences? How do you capture those who don’t already like you?

We didn’t have time for my question, but I wanted to ask whether he was still worried about class, race, age, gender, etc. Would he, for example, think about putting children in a curatorial board? I don’t necessarily mean to argue that we should categorise difference in such a way. Indeed, we might argue that limiting ourselves through these sorts of (equally reductive?) audience categories. Maybe another way of conceiving of diversity of audience is useful. It’s also worth underlining points several people made on twitter: however we choose to think about difference, identity (a) is always fluid and multiplicitous and (b) can be changed by the experience of visiting a museum (indeed, people might go to museums to be changed).

I’m sure that interesting work has come out of Pekarik’s sense of difference, and I love his point about the need to consider this as an ongoing process. Still, I worried that it’s a bit too abstract, a bit too devoid of social context (though maybe he’d say I’m just being too much of a “people person”…). Personally, I felt more comfortable with the notion of “community curation” discussed later by Karen Fort from the National Museum of the American Indian. I suspect this sort of approach captures the social and cultural diversity museums I’m worrying about and, in the process, will probably end up covering the differences Pekarik was playing with too. Similarly,  we heard about some very open and exploratory ways of involving audiences today – Denver Community Museum, Wellcome’s Things and London ReCut – I suspect there are all sorts of “differences” captured by these too. Also relevant, I think, was Nina Simon’s challenge to think about how a busy museum could, in a web2.0 sense, help make a museum better (not just break exhibits). Projects like these seemed like genuine attempts to involve more viewpoints than just those already held by a museum. In contrast, Pekarik seemed to be working from a point of view where the museum retained the power to frame and articulate its audiences.

Maybe he’s right to though. Maybe we want museums to talk to their idea of us rather than integrate audiences in the very fabric of their production. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 1980s with a focus on Big Social Issues like class. Or, maybe when it comes to communication projects, we need to think about what we have in common rather than what sets us apart; areas of similarity, not difference. (Maybe that’s just another distraction).

ADDED 25/10. At the end of the final day, Elizabeth Anionwu from the Dana Centre’s African-Caribbean Focus Group argued she shouldn’t have to be there: the  museum shouldn’t have to go to a special focus group for that sort of perspective, it should it be part of conversations happening already. It should be woven into the infrastructure of the museum.

I couldn’t agree more. I heard the line “but the Science Museum is this great big oil tanker of an institution, it takes ages to change” three times over the course of the weekend. I also heard complaints that I heard 10 years ago when I first started working there. And complaints about problems from the 80s I only learnt about in my history of science degree. It’s time to decommission that bloody oil tanker. The museum is, at least in part, its staff. The crowdsourced grass-roots innovative bottom-up change people were banging on about at the conference applies within the institution too. Don’t like it? Do something.

10 thoughts on “Engaging audiences: rethinking “difference”

  1. Tas

    Hi Alice,

    Good post. I’m not sure that an audience necessarily knows what it wants. Sometimes, speaking as a member of the public, we visit with an open mind ready to be guided rather than with any sense of expectation. But I also think, we need to learn about others through their eyes not through our own, if that is possible. Sometimes, the teacher does need to learn from the student outsides of the confines of the classroom. In that sense, Pekarik has a point but implementing such ideals may not be realistic.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      I think you’re right about not always knowing what they want – I like to go to museums to be surprised! I also often go to them wanting to be told stuff, reasonably passively (not spend time contributing). It’s a free time activity and “engagement” sounds like too much work sometimes!

  2. Pete

    Interesting discussion. To state the obvious I’d suggest the real difference is between people who visit museums and people who don’t think they’re for them – you can’t engage with people if they never make it through the door. I remember looking around a certain museum event and realising that it was full of people from the same class/race/area. This spurred us to put together a roadshow to take talks/events out into the local community/region instead of expecting the community to come to the museum and engage with us.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Yes, best presentations at that event emphasised that if you want to find those “hard to reach audiences”, you need to get off your bottom and go out to where they are.

  3. hapsci

    A thought struck me as I was reading this post and as I read Tas’ comment, is engaging someone really any different to selling to someone? And if you think about engaging with someone as selling to them, does it help you to achieve it?

    I can see how you would argue that engaging and selling are different, but hear me out. Engaging someone involves connecting with them, drawing them in and possibly getting them excited. It will involve them ‘buying into’ an idea or concept. Good and successful sellers have products and marketing campaigns targeted to a specific group/person. Museums have a tougher job here as they are trying to draw in a diverse group of people but they do target groups of people and within that can specifically target smaller groups of people through specific events (e.g. school children between 5-9). No one product would expect to target everyone between the ages of 5-50 – unless it is essential (like toilet roll and even then toilet roll is targeted at different types/groups of people). The museum needs to decide which groups of people they are selling too.

    I disagree somewhat with Elizabeth Anionwu’s statement as not every group of people is represented within a museum and therefore people may forget about people different to themselves (human nature), so having focus groups can help give people perspective and create awareness. Nor do I believe that every group of people needs to be represented on a panel/consortium in order to reach out to all diverse groups. It’s all about knowing your target market and knowing how to sell to them. A woman can design the marketing campaign and sell razors to men even though she doesn’t shave, but she needs to do her market research first to know what kind of men she is selling the razor to and what they respond to. There are a million and 1 different ways you could split a group of people into categories and categorising them can help target and sell to them, but you need to find the right categories depending on what you are selling. For example, you could split men into age groups and sell the razor in a way that 40-50 year old men respond to OR you could split the men into ones that shave daily and sell and market your product in a way that they respond to. There is no right or wrong answer – but you do need to fix a category and a target before you can start selling. All good sellers/marketers use focus groups and other consumer research tools to find out who they are trying to connect with and how best to do that. There are also tools to help categorise people. These tools and the information gained from sessions such as focus groups have to be used and interpreted properly or little or no benefit will be gained. Use Tas’ comment as an example, if you ask people directly what they want vast majority of the time they cannot tell you because they don’t know.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Engaging in the context discussed at that conference is often comparable to selling, yes. It’s not a very controversial thing to say. I like to get my students to acknowledge the PR aspect of a lot of so-called “engagement” work. That said, equally PR professionals would often say they job is to advocate as much as sell (which, depending on context, might be seen as slightly different). Moreover, the notion of “engagement” in both science communication and museums (so doubly-so at The Science Museum) it’s also mixed in with more “dialogue” based ideas too, where you seek to make audiences part of the production of the material communicated.

      As BIS have stated in some doc or another, engagement is an “umbrella term”. My translation: “includes so many meanings it is almost meaningless” ;)

      I think Anionwu was talking about the context of her focus group and the Science Museum (which is huge). I maybe should have added something else she said, which was to ask what is the diversity of museum staff? Similarly, what is the diversity – ethnic, gender, class, otherwise – of the science communication industry? Most of my students are white Russell Group trained women (not all, in the slightest, but most of them). I should also say that you could equally use the bit you pull out of Tas’ comment to argue she’s right that you shouldn’t have focus groups…

      1. Tas

        It’s funny that this debate on the nature of engagement should come up. This is a topic I have had on my mind having recently being appointed in an engagement role for UK PubMed Central (UKPMC). I think it is certainly not only PR because PR only involves selling the good points and working out how to include key messages in a product that is already developed. I do think of it more as an ongoing dialogue. It involves mostly trying to work out in some way what it is our consumer expects. To engage is to try to reach a mutual understanding. For me, this should be tangible, for example researchers wanting another tool or hating a particular feature. I expect my audience to argue and debate and most are pretty hard to please. For you, this its much more abstract because the ‘consumer’ will never really have an idea of what they want until you forcibly put some ideas in their head to work with and make them to play about with the concepts. Most will not want to do anything except be passive. The Wellcome Trust say they want people to be ‘informed, inspired and involved’ in their mission statement for public engagement with Science. I would argue that is not necessary that all of your audience has to be all of those things. It depends on aptitude, inclination, time and many other factors. Sometimes one is enough.

        As for focus groups, we can’t predict for certain what would emerge but could you argue that one group that included more ‘diversity’ would produce more interesting results than another that had only white Russell group-educated males? The outcome is often dependent on individual personalities and group dynamics and probably much more so than on ethnic background.

        1. alicerosebell Post author

          I think you are right about group dynamics, but think of the way the museum are using Anionwu’s focus group as a (rhetorical as well as developmental) tool. I still think she is right that it’s depressing that she has to be there.

          On THE MEANING OF ENGAGEMENT. In the big scheme of things, it doesn’t have a meaning. Instead, it has many. So, your idea that “To engage is to try to reach a mutual understanding” is entirely valid, but so is the Wellcome Trust and the Science Museum’s definitions (and frankly they are bigger and scarier than you, or me for that matter).

          Seriously: BIS’ point about the “umbrella term” is v accurate. I don’t think fighting over what engagement does or doesn’t mean will get anyone in sci com’n very far. Talking a bit about it and thinking about the history of the term can be useful, but trying to decide on a definition is a huge red herring. I feel quite strongly that we’re better off trying to avoid using it and instead talking specifically about what we mean.

      2. hapsci

        Totally agree. Focus groups can be completely useless, however, if you do your market research with the correct people in the correct way you can gain an awful lot from it and that doesn’t need to involve asking people directly what they want.

  4. Tas

    I think I do agree with you there. As someone from a scientific research background, vague umbrella terms make me uncomfortable hence the tendency to define a meaning. It’s much better broken down into specifics.


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