Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Museum Marketing 21st Century Style

Having visited numerous small to medium size museums, historical societies, and historical houses in the past six months, I have become acutely aware of some of the challenges that especially smaller institutions face in the wake of an ever increasing competition for the time of American audiences. Not only has "television, mass media, and electronic media ...changed the public’s recreational activities," but "for-profit corporations" have taken on an increasing role in developing "exhibitions, cultural programming, and ‘edutainment’" that continues to overshadow and threaten especially small institutions with small budgets. This competition has made the necessity for such small institutions as the local historical society to focus more directly than ever before on marketing strategies (Genoways and Ireland 258, 260).

"Marketing," with its traditions of competition, and sometimes cut-throat at that, has often been seen by the museum community as something for them to resist. What hasn't been stressed enough among board members, administrators, and staffs, is that marketing strategies can make such institutions greater at serving their audiences, for successful marketing strategies are founded on an understanding of the public and their needs, or perceived needs. Small institutions, like the local historical society, need to step up to the plate and deliver new and attractive ways of "presenting themselves." They must drive the point home that they are the "‘the real thing,’" a place where "meaningful objects and trustworthy information" reside.

The best strategy for this may simply be to have a greater role in the lives of the public. In doing this they negate all their fears about taking on the agenda of marketing, for greater involvement in the community through education offerings like storytime hours for children, after school programs, and school visits may alone boost exposure and ultimately greater patronage without going the road of the hard sell. These institutions also need to embrace the history of more than merely the elite of the past, present other periods in history other than the distant past, and, finally, take on the untraditional role of documenting and presenting their community’s more recent past through the mediums of our own time—digital photography and audio in order to meet market needs.

So "taking on the point of view of visitors," or potential visitors, is a key to greater success, and it may mean that some institutions must transcend merely narratives about the 17th-19th centuries and market to the current demand for late twentieth century nostalgia by baby boomers and Gen-Xers. This may be a way to both preserve their missions, draw people in for their long existing collections, remain relevant, and grow. In saying this, I am reminded of institutions in which very dedicated individuals scratch their heads and wonder why the public isn’t coming; they and their institutions have remained static while the rest of the world have passed them by.

What might be some of the specific marketing strategies that might make such institutions more obviously relevant in the public’s eye? The Andover Historical Society in Massachusetts has sought to reinvent how their community members come to know about their offerings. They have struck upon the idea of organizing a farmer’s market where one no longer existed. Small farms are all over its surrounding community. A high school student at the nearby Phillip’s Academy actually initiated the idea when she contacted the Society and inquired about whether a farmer's market presently existed for her to sell produce from. The Society sent out feelers about the possibility of one being created by them, and many local farmers jumped at the opportunity.

The Historical Society provided rental space for these farmers on their property next to their historical house headquarters thus taking an active role in the making of history in their community rather than merely preserving and sharing it. This scheme not only brings in revenues from the rental spaces but also succeeds at bringing a significant number of people on the society’s grounds whereby they could be invited in and be provided with outdoor as well as indoor programming. There was significant free press coverage as a result of the success of this venture, and this has brought even more people in contact with the Society’s offerings. In sum, this was a public relations coup. Many locals admitted that they never knew anything about the Historical Society, although they passed it daily.

There is the promise of bringing in a whole new demographic with such types of ventures, for the attendance previous to this was almost exclusively senior citizens seeking genealogical information from the Society’s research facilities. The market could also serve thematically with the extant 19th century offerings of this site. Workshops offering instruction in crafts are offered and could be further developed in conjunction with this active agricultural endeavor. Historical societies have other opportunities of making that greater connect with the public. Other opportunities might include providing "edutainment" like summer film festivals that include foreign and art titles not served by national cinema chains and additional discussion forums. Viewing could be offered outdoors.

With the number of local cable channels available today small museums might present some of their holdings in televised exhibits, which may be as simple as having a curator or scholar talk about a piece that stands in front of him or her. Video tours of historical houses and sites and re-enactments could be the stuff of such cable programming created by volunteers and initiated by the historical society. Digital videotaping has made such a possibility affordable. Programming could also be assisted with cooperative partnerships with local schools and colleges of budding historians and media production professionals.

It seems logical that a local historical society could market itself by taking a more active role in the technologies that pose a threat to their survival. They could establish greater relevancy by actively participating in the current documentation of a community for future posterity. What about all the information the living have about their own lives? Oral histories that involve both video and audio should be integral to a evolving mission for local historical societies. How about sponsoring reunions of local garage bands from the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Have them play for the community. Record this for posterity, for it is unlikely that this part of a communities history will be ignored, lost, and supplanted by traditional collecting practices. Do historical societies have an obligation to preserve more recent history of a community? I think they do. Adapting a society’s collecting focus goes hand-in-hand with marketing the institution to a younger public; these, after all, will inherit the institution and will be responsible for its future survival.


Genoways, Hugh H. and Lynne M. Ireland. Museum Administration: An Introduction. Rowman Altamira, 2003.