Our UK-based representative, Alex von der Becke attended the October 2021 SHARE Museums East online conference, ‘Regroup Rethink Reset’.
Christina Lister, a marketing and audience development consultant, shared how the pandemic has affected audiences, looking at both the challenges and the opportunities facing the museum sector.
She began by pointing out how the last 20 months have forced museums to work in new ways. Jane Austen’s House near Alton, Hampshire, ran a gingerbread challenge where bakers around the world shared images of their Jane Austen-inspired gingerbread creations on the website. Doncaster Museums created activity packs with information about collections, puzzles and reminiscences. And the Museum of East Anglian Life (one of our eHive clients) gave the local community free access to its grounds during lockdown so they could take part in a fitness challenge.
Christina noted that the effects of the pandemic and shielding (staying at home) have hampered museums, with significantly fewer staff and volunteers . Museums had to focus on the short term, as the long term is so turbulent. She emphasised that digital competition is global, and not limited to the cultural sector but also giant online consumer and entertainment platforms.
Museums have successfully engaged with audiences in new ways and have changed their approach to digital. Before the pandemic, digital was a way to drive in-person visits to museums. Now, digital is valid engagement in its own right. Staff and volunteers have improved their skills and increased their confidence in digital activities. Entrepreneurialism, innovation and experimentation are everywhere, with a more relaxed philosophy of “Let’s try it and see, then fine-tune.” There is a growing sense of museums being there for their audiences and communities.
Christina noted that audience success includes local community support and a strong presence of in-person visitors during summer 2021, which included members, families and young people. The geographic reach of digital audiences has expanded. Some groups with traditionally lower engagement are more involved. And people with disabilities now have more online opportunities.
However, the pandemic has affected audiences unequally. Inevitably, fewer international people visited museums in person. Some audiences are still excluded from digital engagement. And Covid restrictions have created additional hurdles for new audiences.
Audience challenges in the medium and longer term include ongoing uncertainty, capacity constraints, managing expectations, understanding audience shifts, and finally, funding and monetising digital.
Conversely, the opportunities over this period include increased digital skills and confidence, new relationships and partnerships, a renewed sense of purpose, and the creation of communities of interest and place.
Christina posed some questions for audience development planning:
- How have your audiences changed?
- What will your digital engagement look like?
- Who are your (new?) target audiences?
- Which pandemic initiatives or approaches will you continue?
- How can you make your approaches as inclusive as possible?
The final challenge consisted of two simple questions which may help define the purpose of your museum and the direction you want to go in:
- What makes you relevant?
- Will the things that got you here get you to where you want to go?