It’s the perennial question – how do we broaden the range of people who visit our museums, particularly those from ‘socially excluded’ groups?

It’s conventional wisdom now, following the experience of the free national museums and supported by a recent study by the Association of Independent Museums, that simply making museums free has little impact on the diversity of museum audiences.  Indeed, sometimes the greatest diversity is generated by paid admission exhibitions designed to appeal to mass audiences.  Free museums have been fantastic for deepening engagement with those already pre-disposed to visit, but have they really attracted those for whom free entry was designed to enthuse?

The real barriers to visiting museums lie much deeper in an individual’s psyche and I revisited Marilyn Hood’s study recently which articulates brilliantly the beliefs that have crystallised in my mind over the years on museum visiting barriers based on my experience of running dozens of focus groups and surveys on the topic.  The scary thing about Marilyn Hood’s work was that it was conducted in the early 1980s (albeit in the US), but looking around at many museums we still don’t appear to have embedded this thinking into our approaches to diversifying audiences and the issues are the same today as they were then.

So in a nutshell, her work is based on understanding motivations for taking part in leisure activities and how these differ between those who visit museums frequently and those who do not visit museums at all.

Most Important Leisure Activity Motivations
Frequent Museum VisitorsMuseum Non-Visitors
Having an opportunity to learnFeeling comfortable and at ease in their surroundings
Having the challenge of new experiencesBeing with people (social interaction)
Doing something worthwhileParticipating actively

The core offer of many museums is therefore designed to attract those who already visit museums frequently.  It’s no wonder that the primary impact of making the national museums free was to encourage those who already visited them to come back more frequently, albeit for shorter visits.

The leisure motivations of non-visitors, and indeed those who only visit museums occasionally, are very different and are at the root of why the museums that have embraced these principles have been more successful in their efforts to diversify their audiences.  Many of you who have been involved with audience segmentations will also recognise these motivations as the basis for some of the segments that often emerge and the relative representation of current visitors and non-visitors within these segments.

Among non-visitors, the most important aspect for me is ‘feeling comfortable and at ease in their surroundings’.  It’s way more than just a friendly welcome at the start of the visit or physical comfort during their experience.  It’s about making them feel that the museum is a place where they belong.  It’s about making them feel equal to or preferably, better than those around them.  It’s about making them feel the museum was designed for people like them, people with their motivations.  In short, just think of Gok Wan – ‘it’s all about the confidence’.

How you achieve this will vary between museums.  I’ve conducted many accompanied visits with those that museums consider ‘socially excluded’ – particularly from lower socio-economic backgrounds – and the elements of the experience that capture the imagination are often those which are currently not considered ‘core’.  The workmanship of the museum building itself, the open spaces that allow the children to run around in a safe environment, the opportunity to spend time with the family, the chance to show off about what they are good at.

Many museums now achieve these objectives through one-off events or temporary exhibitions, but the more significant challenge is how to ensure that these act as gateways for repeat visits to the core offer.  This is only ever going to be achieved if the core offer is more in-tune with the motivations of non-visitors.  Currently, these motivations are much more likely to satisfied by zoos and theme parks or even going to a football match or shopping.

Importantly then, when we are talking about diversifying audiences, we should perhaps not be talking in terms of broadening demographics – DEs, BMEs, people with disabilities – we should be talking in terms of broadening the motivations we cater for if we really want to tackle the issue.  Whilst leisure choices are certainly correlated with demographics they are not determined by them.

I would urge a quick read of Marilyn Hood’s work for anyone interested in diversifying audiences.  This summary is only seven pages!