The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2012

A Seventeenth Sounding: What We Know About Our Audiences

Utopian or Cynical Behaviour?

Visitor studies seems critical for museums - but their usefulness, validity as scientific collections of data, and their influence can be questioned. It is this that Gloria Romanello seeks to investigate. Using a qualitative method allows her to add a level of theory, of insight and understanding - albeit subjectively. She selected and interviewed members of staff at three contemporary art museums who were directly involved with community and visitor engagement. It is not, in this case the scientific validity of the survey which is questioned, but the motivations and biases which lie behind them.

Counter to what we tend to think, the reasons that visitor studies are instigated do not seem to be to do with increased democratization or the public knowledge, but the personal identity of the staff conducting and instigating them, and their desire not just improve, but to validate their own performance. It is worth questioning who precisely are the instigators of the investigation and who, indeed, are those who perform the action. Whether they are internal or external, 'superstar evaluator' or front of house staff, is certainly related to what, and why, their motivations might be, and perhaps, how cynical we should be about them.

Concrete and objective data is also used as a justification to, and for, the upper levels, turning visitor studies into an instrument at the service of the organization, measuring and validating what they, and the individuals within them, do. It is also used to develop interior, interdepartmental working, once again focussed not upon the outside world, but upon the inner existence of the museum concerned. In practicing visitor surveying, museums can justify themselves to exterior bodies - official or commercial - and can use the data collected to maximize their marketing potential. We can hardly deny, for instance, that when a survey asks for demographic data such as name, age, gender, race, that there is a possibility that these results might be used, more cynically, for marketing purposes.

Is this hypocritical behavior? Is the overstatement of the value of visitor studies as developing democratic, educational and social services counter to that more interior drive which Gloria found in her interviews? I'm not sure that the two need be, or even are, mutually exclusive. What I would suggest is a more interesting question to interrogate is the enhancement of the visitor-museum divide, and the emphasis which is once more placed upon the authority of the "Museum Institution".

Is the situation as sinisterly Orwellian as this? I think that we should, indeed, question the motivations which lie behind taking actions such as visitor studies - there may, of course, always be ulterior motives for some, but whether this negates the value of the other, less cynical and more visitor-focused ideals is a debatable point. But we should also harbor some sense of hope - I imagine that there are many out there for whom the museum visitor survey or study remains a task designed to seek, and make a better exhibition, a better institution - and perhaps, a better world.

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