Erja Salo:

How to engage a broader audience? Learning outcomes from UK

ERJA SALO, HEAD OF EDUCATION AND PUBLIC PROGRAMMES, THE FINNISH MUSEUM OF PHOTOGRAPHY

My project plan for my visit at the National Media Museum (NMeM) was at the outset very flexible. When communicating before my arrival with the director Jo Quinton-Tulloch, we agreed that my goal would be to explore specific case studies on audience engagement, and review the best practices. Furthermore it was decided that I would meet museum staff in other Science Museum Group Museums in London, York and Manchester to understand what kind of work they do in their communities –– their different projects and programmes. It was also my goal to understand the communities in Bradford and the work that the National Media Museum already does. I also wanted to visit other museums and cultural institutions in Bradford to see what other kind of community activities are going on, which groups are already engaged, and which projects have been successful. Thus, during my visit I met and interviewed about 30 professionals from 13 different museums and galleries in England and Scotland. I also met with other regional actors in the field of culture.

My key questions were how to engage broader audiences and what kind of partnerships exists in the audience engagement work. I wanted to gain experience on how to use the exhibition space as a place of activity and encounter, what are the challenges of having artists participate in museum education and bringing slow art programming instead action-based workshops.

What are the challenges of having artists participate in museum education?

About the National Media Museum and its strategic objectives

Each museum inside the Science Museum Group knows its audience well and the research results guide the work done in the museum. The visitor research done by the cluster is significant on the national level. This leads to detailed and thorough strategic planning both nationally and locally. NMeM aims to grow its audience up to 600 000 annual visitors by 2017/18 (c. 110 000 more than present), and that will be mainly done by targeting families during the holidays and engaging local community groups. The strategic objectives of the museum in general are linked to the development projects of the city of Bradford, in which the museum is presented as one of the central agencies in the region. Bradford is a city with communities, which are traditionally considered 'hard to reach', with high levels of unemployment, low socio-economic levels, and low levels of attainment at some schools. It is also a multi-cultural area with a high proportion of Asian residents.

How to engage a diverse audience?

Reaching the local Yorkshire families and schools is a central part of NMeM´s education programme – by the year 2018 the goal is that from every secondary school in Bradford one class shall visit the museum. That means 250 class visits, which more than doubles the present amount. Another important engagement strategy is to develop the Lates event, which is aimed at young adults, to a permanent program that attracts thousands of young people.

The Learning Strategy in the National Media museum is part of the Science Museum Group Learning Strategy. I was impressed by the profoundness with which the strategy and actions were run. Historically, NMeM had provided a regularly changing programme of activities for visitors. This programme had focused on the creation of media (film, TV, photography) and literacy and the events delivered (workshops, tours, lectures etc.) were intensive and focused on small groups. This was something I found very familiar and could relate with on the basis of my own work with audiences.

However, recently the focus of the learning programme had been shifted as part of the broader plan to increase the numbers of visitors, raise the profile of the museum and to increase visitor engagement with NMeM and its collections.

The new focus of the learning programme included a stronger emphasis on science, engineering and mathematics, a move to more scheduled and programmed activities and changes in format to enable shorter, more inclusive events that reach larger numbers of people. Presently the whole volunteer and community programme is under review but participation, community engagement and partnerships are still seen as key resources in future.

In the very beginning of my Mobius period in the UK I joined the Guardian Culture Professionals Network where I could follow the British discussion around different topics. What caught my eye was an article by James McQuaid titled ”Audience engagement in arts and heritage: the traps we fall into”, where he pointed out the usual mistakes cultural institutions do when they try to know and engage their audiences. According to McQuaid, the most effective way for the museums to be part of the society is to be meaningful in people’s everyday life: “The elephant in the room in this case is the actual culture and core activity of an organization: how does it speak for you and to the audiences you wish to attract? How integrated and congruent does it feel? Will your audiences see themselves in your people and your messages?”

Local partnerships or competing attaractions

For photography oriented audience the National Media Museum was not the only venue to visit in Bradford or even in Yorkshire at large. The Impressions Gallery, which is located in the heart of Bradford, next to the library, City Hall and the City Park is located only few hundred meters from the NMeM. I visited the gallery regularly and met with the Learning Manager Sophie Powell. Regarding the NMeM, I see the Impressions Gallery as a good partner, with their work focusing on young adults and youth, as well as their pedagogical work with photographers .. Unlike NMeM, the Impressions Gallery has a different strategy of learning; it does not approach photography through science but instead as art and visual literacy. This could, however, be seen as a benefit in their partnership. Via Powell I also became aware of the Arts Award supporter. It is a badge, which shows that an organization, like the Impressions Gallery, offers activities, which young people can take part in when doing their Arts Award, such as shows, exhibitions, workshops, meet the artist sessions, work experience etc. An organization can benefit from being a supporter by giving the badge to new audiences when they access the museum or the gallery for the first time. The badge strengthens organizations’ relationship with schools and youth groups as well as encourages young people to do the Arts Award. I can see how a similar badge in Finland could unite art museums and high school students who are doing their high school arts diploma, and how it could strengthen the link between the school curriculum and museum content: between art and learning.

Another partner for NMeM within the city of Bradford could be the Artworks Creative Communities. ACC is a regional organization, which was founded in Bradford in 1998.They work across all art forms, with people of all ages and focus on projects that promote health and wellbeing, reduce disadvantage and promote positive community cohesion. When I visited their office in Bradford, director Suzy Russell presented me two projects they have done recently together with the homeless community of Bradford through digital photography, film, poetry, creative writing and rap music. Hidden voices, Hidden Talent and Forgotten were both engaging, empowering projects that were run by the members of the homeless community with the support from participating organizations.

National examples of Youth engagement programme

One of the objectives in NMeM by 2018 is to have a partner borough, including youth engagement programme. Engaging young adult audience is also important for the Finnish Museum of Photography, so one of the themes in my meetings with different museum and gallery professionals was to study their different practices and approaches with that specific group. During my meetings with Emma Bowen and Simon Taylor from Ikon gallery in Birmingham, Sarah Campbell from V&A in London, Emily Pringle from the Tate in London and Marisa Draper from the HOME/Cornerhouse in Manchester I was focusing on the engagement work that the organizations do with young people. Ikon gallerys Ikon Youth Programme (IYP), V&As Young People´s Collective Create Voice and Tate Liverpool´s youth group Tate Collective are all young people´s (c. 16–24 years old) participatory programmes. They are all built on the belief that young people should be responsible for shaping their own learning – helping to devise and carry out activities, and setting the criteria for assessment.

I found the Engagement strategy work that the Head of Engagement Marisa Draper from HOME presented particularly interesting and impressive. Their engagement plan, its context and programme give an excellent outline for any organization to reflect and outline one’s own work with young audiences and communities even if the resources to do it are scarce.

Horrible Histories, Lates and Slow Art – examples of audience engagement

There were two festivals during my visiting period in NMeM that caught my interest, and I found the strategic thinking behind them very impressive. The first festival was Lates and the second Horrible Histories in October. Horrible Histories is a family targeted event and Lates is a new format to attract young adults with science.

Horrible Histories belongs to the group of events organized since spring 2012 and delivered twice (February and October) a year during the mid-term holidays. The previous titles for the events have been for example Doctor Who, Skylanders, Horrid Henry, and Shawn the Sheep this February. They are all well-known brands that the target audience knows. This can be seen in visitor numbers, which are very high; during one week period between 21 000–35 000 visitors enjoy the event. In partnership with these major brands NMeM ´s Learning Department builds a high quality programme with a content that is linked to the museum’s collection. During my placement I enjoyed the Horrible Histories event, which this time was about Victorian era and its inventions and gadgets. The Explainers, like the team of audience workers/art educators were called in Science Museum Group, engaged family audiences in several workshops or interactive gallery talks, both held in the exhibition space. The talks followed by the workshop possibility were called Movement and Murder: The Muybridge story, Vile Victorian Villains, Vile Victorian - Spooky Spirit Portraits.

The Lates is a format and programme that has been already in use in the Science Museum in London and attracts 40 000 adults a year. During my fellowship, the NMeM organized its first Lates for adults, a free event after museum’s closing hours. The target audience for the event are new and former adult visitors (suggested age range 18-29). The subtitle for the event was called Let’s Get Digital and it focused on gaming and programming within the context of NMeM´s collection. The event was realized in partnership with Bradford Science Festival, Bradford University and local operators in the game and programme industry. Lates attracted 400 visitors during the three hours it was open. During the evening I did my part under section Play where visitors could participate in different activities connected with games and programming and science. My post was about facilitating an activity called Tinker with Doodlebots, which aimed to provide ”an enjoyable, fun and informal learning experience and inspire to learn more about electrical circuits, motors and programming.”

Slow museum is an audience engagement programme built around ”downshifting” and focuses on communication, sharing and visual literacy.

Slow Art – Slow Museum

I was already interested in Slow art programming before my stay in the UK, but my visit made me sure of its power and necessity to all audiences. Slow museum is an audience engagement programme built around ”downshifting” and focuses on communication, sharing and visual literacy. During my visit in the Photographers Gallery in London I got a lot of support to my idea from the Head of Learning Janice MacLaren who shared the ideology and had it implemented already. The Photographers Gallery has built two concepts around the idea of Slow Art. On Wednesdays they have Look again conversation group, which focuses on one image at the time, and the experience is shared within the group. To enable slow engagement with art also for individual visitors, they have a space called Touchstone where concentration and meditation on one picture only is encouraged. Janice MacLaren also told me about international Slow Art Day in which the Finnish Museum of Photography is participating for the first time this spring, along with more than hundred other museums in Europe and United States. In NMeM I could see Slow Art programming working well in adult focused exhibitions that present the collections of the National Media Museum in Media Space in Science Museum in London and are later transferred to audiences in Bradford.

The things I learned the most about during my fellowship were strategic planning and management. Another essential thing to bring home with me is the use of different visitor or customer panels in public programming, and also in planning and evaluating the operations of the entire museum. In the audience engagement plan to the Finnish Museum of Photography, I have suggested five focus areas for engagement: using the exhibition space as a platform for public programs and education once or twice a year, young adults program, artists as educators program, outreach program and a slow art program for adult audiences. This strategic thinking was the result of the experience and learning through the Mobius Fellowship programme.

References:

  1. MacQuaid, James. Audience engagement in arts and heritage: the traps we fall into. http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2014/oct/06/audience-engagement-arts-heritage-traps (accessed 30.11.2014); MacQuaid, James. Audiences in arts, culture and heritage: solutions to our problems. http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2014/oct/13/audiences-arts-culture-heritage-solutions (accessed 30.11.2014).

    1. Powell, Sophie 1.10.2014; see especially This is me exhibition and the New Focus group projects. http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=67; http://www.impressions-gallery.com/education/projects.php.
    2. Russell, Suzy 7.10.2014 (Director, Projects and Systems), Artworks Creative communities.
    3. Forgotten. A Collection of Creative Writing and Photography by Hidden Homeless. Copyright © Artworks Creative Communities 2010, 2–9; Hidden Voices, Hidden Talent. A collection of words and images from the Hidden Homeless. Black Dogs, 2012. Copyright © Artworks Creative Communities 2012, 34–37.
    4. Bowen, Emma (Learning Coordinator, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham) and Taylor, Simon 26.9.2014 ( Head of Learning, Ikon gallery, Birmingham); Pringle, Emily 4.11.2014 (Head of Learning and Research, Tate, London); Draper, Marisa 30.10.2014 (Head of Engagement, HOME/Cornerhouse, Manchester); Campbell, Sarah 6.11.2014 (Head of Schools, Families and Young People, V&A, London).
    5. Lynch, Bernadette. Slow Boat to youth activism. Finding Slow Boat. Slow Boat programme 2011-13, 34–37. Ed by Kate Self. Emmersons. © Ikon Gallery, the artists and authors; Plus Tate Learning Programme. Ed by Frances Follin of Genesys, with Marie Bak Mortensen and Judith Nesbitt. Tate, 2013, 7¬¬–17; HOME. An Engagement Plan for 2014–2017 (not published).
    6. Part of the unpublished engagement strategy are now published on HOME webpage since the new venue opened this spring http://homemcr.org/work/engagement/ (accessed 20.2.2015).
    7. Richmond, Elaine 12.11.2014 (Explainers Team Manager, National Media Museum, Bradford).
    8. Doodlebots evaluation sheet for Lates, NMeM, Bradford.
    9. MacLaren, Janice 6.11. 2014 (Head of Learning, Photographer`s Gallery, London).
    10. Slow art Day web pages have a lot of background information about the theme and the importance of looking slow. http://www.slowartday.com (accessed 5.3.2015).

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