A few days ago, the German Museum Association published guidelines on visitor research, which I was honoured to contribute to. This experience of thinking specifically about the aims and advantages of doing visitor research then combined with another recent experience to further sharpen a thought that’s been with me for some time about what museums are and what they are for.
At the beginning of March, we hosted ‘The Promised Land’ project partners for the training week in Germany. We are the only museums participating in the project, and it quickly became clear that we needed a session on establishing what defined a museum in the partners’ minds. Their responses covered the whole range, from the classic (‘a place to learn/see things from the past’) to the more contemporary (‘a place to meet/discuss with others our present and future’) and the highly discourse-driven (‘a place where Western hegemonies still dominate and must be challenged!’).
I could not dismiss any of the definitions the partners gave, and not just because I know them to be highly educated and experienced culture experts. I realised in my subsequent conversations with them that I was qualifying my responses, noting that in such and such a case, yes, a museum may be that, but in another case, it may be this.
The point is, I have always argued that with regards to understanding heritage (values), and planning and implementing interpretation, we must start with visitor research. What I have always thought, but until now never really considered important enough to add to my arguments, is that visitor research also establishes what purpose a specific museum serves. These purposes can be very different depending on the type of heritage the museum deals with and the reasons for which that heritage is valued.
This by no means is to suggest that we now need new discourses for each individual type of museum, on the contrary. Where there are parallels these are unlikely to follow the distinctions between local history museums, national heritage sites, and art museums – at least, that is what the visitor studies I have done or read seem to suggest. Rather, the equivalences probably revolve around people’s existing relationships with the heritage in question, in other words, the values they attach to it.
Such a definition of a museum’s purpose based on visitor research and not its institutional organisation and structure necessarily also has an impact on wider topics that are currently being debated within the sector, such as inclusion and visitor focus. Inclusion, for example, will take on a different quality, and require a different approach, in a context where the subject-matter of a museum is related to (local or national) identity than in a context where it is valued for aesthetic reasons. Acknowledging this on the discursive level may help prevent the ‘one size fits all’ approach to some of these topics, and their all-encompassing rejection by those who – rightly or wrongly – feel these approaches would not be appropriate to their heritage or museum.
Either way, when I was recently asked to present a short talk at the spring conference of the Museum Association of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania on the topic of visitor research, I decided to explore this connection to the purposes of museums further. The conference takes place next week; I shall report back on comments.