Connecting with visitors is one of the most important aspects of running a museum.
Without a welcoming atmosphere, engaging interpretation and a wide audience reach, people will become disinterested or will find one of many other ways to spend their time. Make your establishment open and accessible in order to build a visitor attraction with a sustainable number of guests.
Understanding, knowing, listening and communicating with your users is at the heart of designing relevant programmes, services and exhibitions and promoting them effectively. While it is best to target a particular audience, you also need to ensure that you have removed or reduced potential barriers to access.
Museums bring learning to life, inject fun and even increase educational attainment.
To make it as successful as possible, you need to:
- Understand who will visit and why, ensuring your museum appeals to enough people
- Create an attractive and welcoming environment, looking after your visitors
- Identify how you want to broaden and increase your audience
- Identify how far you want to involve your users
- Choose how to bring your collections to life through interpretation
- Create offers for schools and others who want to learn
When a visitor walks through your front door, they are choosing to come to your museum rather than going to the cinema, park, library, café, playground, shopping centre or going for a walk. You are competing for their leisure time so you must be confident that you can meet their expectations.
Regardless of what facilities you provide, a smile and customer-focused service can transform their experience.
A space for visitors
A museum is something that exists for visitors. This means that you will need some kind of space to welcome them, whether that's a pop-up space in a public building or your own property.
Leasing a space or purchasing a building has legal and financial implications and should only be undertaken following robust business modelling. This is not recommended if you are an unincorporated organisation as trustees are jointly and severally liable for any financial loss.
If your museum is keen to own its own property, it might be worth considering whether there are buildings currently owned by a public sector body that could be transferred to your organisation. For a number of years, local authorities and other public sector bodies have been interested in transferring the responsibility for managing buildings to community organisations.
This process, commonly known as Asset Transfer, has been explored in Scotland as part of the Government's community empowerment agenda. Liability for the building and responsibility for its upkeep are likely to be transferred as well.
Using your space well
Bear these things in mind before you choose your space:
- Use external signage well so people can find your museum easily. Consider signs on your building and on major routes to the space, although this may require contacting your local planning department.
- Flyer the local community and the surrounding area, with information about your building including directions.
- Don't cram in things you don't have space for, including a museum shop. Prioritise your museum's purpose when designing the space.
- Make the most of local facilities. If the best cup of tea is available next door then tell your visitors. This will leave you free to concentrate on other services that complement those of your neighbours.
- Front of house staff and volunteers are crucial to a positive visitor experience.
- Consider working with other museums to send in "mystery visitors" for regular feedback on your service.
Visitor experience checklist
Use these questions to ascertain whether visitors are having a positive experience of your museum:
- Are you easy to find?
- Are you open when people want to visit? How will they know?
- Does your site feel secure? Is it a safe building?
- Will visitors be dry and comfortable?
- What will visitors do with wet coats?
- Where are the nearest clean toilets including baby changing and accessible toilets?
- Where can visitors get refreshments?
- How will you welcome people to your museum?
- Is there a safe space for school groups or vulnerable people to have a break?
- Is there space for members of the public and academics to research your collection?
A bad experience drives visitors away more than a lack of facilities. Don't underestimate the value of a smile and welcome, or a properly resolved complaint. Collect user feedback through surveys and websites such as TripAdvisor to help you improve the visitor experience.
VisitScotland Quality Assurance Scheme
This is a paid-for, independently assessed scheme that provides extensive feedback on how to improve the user experience in your museum. Experts will grade your museum on a ranking system from 'Acceptable' to 'Excellent.'
It will report on these elements of your museum:
- Brochures, leaflets and website
- Brown-and-white attraction signposting
- Appearance of grounds
- Car park
- On-site signage
- Appearance of buildings
- Price display
- Staff welcome, attitude and efficiency
- Appearance of staff
- Accessibility of interior layout
- Decor and maintenance
- Visitor orientation
- Meeting needs of different audiences
- Interpretation and information
You need visitors if your museum is to be a success. However, as people have varying interests, not everyone will be in a rush to visit your museum. Understanding your visitors is vital - who they are, where they come from, their likes and dislikes - as it can help you build a stronger museum that appeals to more people.
Who goes to museums
Your audience depends on where you are and what you have. A major city museum with a large and diverse collection will have a larger pool of people to draw from than an isolated rural museum with a specialist collection.
Be careful not to overestimate the number of visitors to your museum as it can have serious consequences on the viability of your organisation. Scotland has a population of 5.3 million, of which a third visit a museum or gallery at least once a year (Scottish Household Survey, 2012). Your museum is entering a competitive market where even the well-established museums only get a small percentage of all visits (Great Britain Day Visits, 2012).
It is well known that new entrants in an established market often find it difficult to attract and retain visitors. It may be that your museum is most likely to appeal to a modest number of local people or those enthusiastic about your collection.
Who will come to my museum?
Knowing who your visitors are will help you plan exhibitions, events and target your marketing activity. In your planning stage you could use local population data such as the census to identify to the scale of potential audiences. Speaking with similar or neighbouring museums and attractions may also help you to estimate visitor numbers.
Once you are up and running, make sure you put systems in place to find out who is visiting your museum and to get some feedback on their experience.
Monitoring visitor numbers through:
- Patterns of tickets sales
- Asking staff to informally identify types of people coming in
- Using Gift Aid postcode data to identify how far visitors are travelling
- Carrying out visitor surveys
Whatever you decide to invest in, make sure you know what you want to do with the information. Then remember to set time aside to analyse it all and discuss your response.
Marketing and promotion
Marketing is essential to keeping your museum in the public eye. Even when budgets are tight, don't cut back on marketing as it will further damage your income streams.
The four Ps
Once you have established who you have as an audience, think carefully about how to reach them. Focus on how you want to say something as much as what to say. Your messages should be consistent, but different audiences need slightly tailored marketing approaches.
Use the four Ps to devise your marketing strategy:
- Product - What is your museum? Why should someone visit you rather than another attraction or activity? Consider who your service is for and what you can offer visitors.
- Pricing - Who are you competing against and do your prices reflect that? Make sure your prices are not a barrier to participation.
- Place - Where is your museum? What else is available to the audience in this area?
- Promotion - What are the most effective methods of communicating with your target audience? See MOSAIC Scotland for further guidance.
- Where are the best places to promote your museum that will reach your audience? Always keep your budget and resources in mind.
Test which combination of these activities will best promote your museum.
- Advertising. Prioritise editorial and news items in papers, magazines, on the radio and television.
- E-marketing and emails. Seek out free or competitively prices e-newsletter tools that will help your museum look professional. Remember to abide by the Data Protection Act. Building your mailing list will take time and patience.
- Leaflets and flyers. These have to be professionally designed, printed and distributed. Badly designed print is one of the quickest ways to put visitors off your museum.
- Public relations and media. Work out what journalists want to hear about and get information to them. Building a strong relationship can help for longer term PR.
- Social media. Set clear guidelines for use that ensure clear communication of key messages in a timely manner. Share responsibility for communicating and encourage wider public engagement.
- Engage in conversations online - especially with bad reviews on websites such as TripAdvisor. Remember to be proactive rather than reactive with all of your web content. All reactions should be from a positive perspective.
- Think about what visitors want to hear, but start with the basics on your website. Make sure people know where you are and when you are open - you might be surprised by how many museums hide such crucial information on their websites!
Communication and interpretation
Your museum will make its objects come alive through stories and storytelling. It is these stories that will draw visitors through your museum, capture their interest and make sure they remember you long after returning home.
Communication and interpretation in your museum make the difference between a happy customer likely to return and a dissatisfied guest leaving a bad review online. Museums are places where visitors come to learn and be inspired, so get inspiring!
Methods of interpretation
- Exhibitions with labelled objects and text panels, although make it engaging!
- Events involving visitors with collections or collections-related activities - from baking in a historic kitchen to a drawing table for children
- Live interpretation through reenactment or commentary
- Immersive experiences such as period rooms
- Digital elements such as apps, touch screens, audio units, projected films and soundscapes
Simple is best with interpretation, most of the time. Sometimes far more work goes into a 'simple' display than a high-tech experience. Factor in wear and tear, ongoing running and repair, including such costs in your budget, even for permanent displays.
Start by asking yourself: what do my visitors want?
Good interpretation uses our understanding of the way we learn matched with a recognised set of learning outcomes to create displays that communicate particular messages to the visitor.
When setting out your desired learning outcomes, keep these questions in mind:
- What kind of information (facts, messages, ideas) will visitors get and take away?
- What kind of attitudes, perceptions and opinions do you want visitors to develop about your subject?
- How will people feel during their visit?
- Following a visit, what kind of skills might people have developed?
- Are visitors encouraged to try new things?
- How do you help visitors express their creativity?
- Are your displays or activities fun for visitors?
- How do you surprise and challenge your visitors?
- How do you want people to behave during their visit?
- What would you like your visitors to do differently as a result of their visit?
Developing good interpretation
There are a number of ways you can sharpen and shape interpretative practices in your museum:
- Change your exhibitions regularly. This is good for your collections and will be a reason for people to return to your museum.
- Temporary exhibition spaces and open storage can open up access to collections and encourage new interpretation.
- Visit other museums and attractions to get ideas about engaging with guests.
- Consider your objectives and your target audience. Then, decide on two or three guiding principles and key messages - base the messages on human stories for maximum impact.
- Long text labels and panels aren't effective. Use labels, short texts, sound and images to convey your messages.
- Remember, research suggests that we will recall up to four messages or themes more easily than facts and figures.
- Every object that is selected for display must work for its keep, so ask yourself what each object really contributes to the museum.
- Lighting makes all the difference. Check that your star objects are well lit, but also that the lighting won't damage them.
- Use object stands and wires to display objects to their best advantage.
- If something breaks or is damaged, remove it straight away. Visitors spot faults and remember them.
- Go round your museum on your knees to see a 'child's eye view', which is doubly helpful as it points out potential health and safety issues.
- Capture visitors' responses to objects in your collections.
- Digital and online solutions can allow those interested to add their stories and participate.
Formal and informal learning
Learning is central to the activity of every museum as it delivers benefits to your visitors and your community.
This isn't a fixed concept - it can involve both formal and informal learning. The former welcomes in schools and colleges, the latter take place in family and friendship groups outside of the formal education system. Many museums choose to focus on one or the other, some museums developing long-standing relationships with formal education providers such as schools and colleges.
Depending on your museum, you might use learning as a means of generating income, alternatively you might wish to use it as a loss leader as part of your charitable purpose. There is no right or wrong decision as long as you are clear why you are investing in learning – is it a charitable activity, for income generation or a mixture of both?
Learning is fun
Museums are great places for informal learning as they provide a neutral, safe learning environment with people who are passionate about their subject. Your collections will inspire interest as they come from different eras and cultures. This makes it easy to associate a museum visit with fun, creative activity.
Make informal learning the bedrock of museum activity. Create activities and workshops with clear learning outcomes. Such activities should encourage families and visitors of all ages to be more positive about learning in general, boosting participation in formal learning.
Who is formal learning for?
Formal learning applies to people in education from nursery to university. If you cannot link your collections, exhibitions and learning resources to their curricula then you are unlikely to secure formal learning visits.
Most educational demand is for primary school children or lifelong learning groups. Other age groups tend to be involved through targeted project activity.
Attracting and retaining formal learning customers is hard work and is unlikely to generate profit for your museum. You should only engage with this market if you are committed to supporting formal learning because it enhances children’s learning experience.
Curriculum for Excellence
The Curriculum for Excellence is a Scottish curriculum designed to help students aged 3-18 become:
- Successful learners
- Confident individuals
- Responsible citizens
- Effective contributors
Your museum should be clear on how it can fit in with the aims of the curriculum and develop these 'four capacities'.
Most schools undertake educational visits to museums to meet the history, geography, and science curricula. With Higher Education, Further Education and Lifelong Learning providers it is best to contact the organisations directly to understand how your work could fit with their programmes. At the other end of the spectrum, don’t forget early years learning providers working with the under-fives.
Get people involved
- Consider whether you could deliver learning programmes in partnership with another organisation so that you can share expertise and capacity.
- Build relationships and talk with teachers and local schools.
- Find out how a visit to your museum might fit with the curriculum and their priorities - they may be able to spot connections and possibilities that you cannot.
- Discuss what resources they might need to make the visit run smoothly. You both want it to be a success!
Museums are usually safe learning environments. Although is very unlikely that your users will be exposed to exploitative individuals you must still make every effort to prevent this from happening. This is for your benefit as well as that of vulnerable individuals.
National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland (2014) places a duty of care on all those who work with children and young people. This means that your museum has a responsibility to ‘do what is reasonable in all circumstances to safeguard the child’s health, development and welfare.’
The same principle should apply to a wider category of people who are vulnerable due to age, life position, or medical condition. This relates to the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007.
If members of staff (including volunteers) are likely to be in charge of, or alone with, children or vulnerable adults your organisation might wish to apply for a ‘Disclosure’ document from Disclosure Scotland. In some instances, it can be a legal requirement for your organisation.
Due to the sensitivity of these matters, it is advisable to obtain professional advice about your approach.
Finally, if you handle Disclosure documents, your museum must think how it manages access to them in compliance with the Data Protection Act.
How to attract learners
- Have layers of information so that people can take in as much or as little as they choose.
- Remember that families often visit in groups. Think how you can encourage conversation between generations.
- Offer a range of activities. Think about talks, activities or a workshop programme to complement your displays and exhibitions.
- Make sure your environment is comfortable for people to stay as long as they like. Think about chairs, refreshments and toilets.
- You don’t need to have a ‘handling collection’ for learners. You can use your collection providing you understand the conservation implications.
- Think around the curriculum. Your museum might have a perfect history subject but teachers have more time allocated to numeracy and literacy.
- Learning outside the classroom can bring a new dimension to schools. Familiarise yourself with the benefits of this and be clear about how you can add value.
- Make sure you can cope with a class visit. Do you have adequate toilets, somewhere they can put their coasts and bags?
- Groups can be noisy. Having a specific education area creates a safe space, helps manage noise and provides a lunch venue where groups can eat lunch.
- Distances further than walking distance or a 30-90 minute drive are problematic for schools, as is funding for travel.
Case study: Coastal Communities Museum
The Coastal Communities Museum is a community museum based in North Berwick for the whole surrounding area. It is volunteer run, in partnership with East Lothian Council. It is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation, but not yet an Accredited museum.
This museum recently reopened having been closed for eleven years. It is very much a museum by and for the people of the area and much of the exhibition content will come directly from local groups.
In their own words
We’d had a museum for North Berwick since 1957 in a former school building. The building didn’t meet health and safety and access requirements and so East Lothian Council closed it down in 2002.
Local people didn’t want their museum to disappear – but no-one had the money to pay for the repairs. Support for the museum continued through the Friends of Berwick Museum and other groups. They petitioned the Council who eventually, in 2011, committed £1.5m capital funding to renovate the building which also holds the library and a café.
When the Council were in a position to support the renovation works they recruited a range of partners to form a shadow committee – some of the original campaigners were still on board and were joined by others with specific skills. Our remit has widened to include North Berwick and the surrounding villages.
Our first task was to make sure we were properly incorporated and in December 2012 we established the Coastal Communities Museum Trust as a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO). This all took time as we were a new group who hadn’t worked together before and needed time to get to know each other and work out what we wanted to do.
We gave ourselves the goal of opening in July 2013. This coincided with the Open Golf tournament coming to Muirfield in East Lothian – and the last time it had come here was in 2002 when we closed. So we wanted to “Reopen for the Open”! It was an intense period of activity, but in hindsight the date gave us the focus we needed to make something happen.
The reopening was hugely successful – 5500 people came, 45% of them from the local area. The community link is vital to us. We work in partnership with lots of groups and societies and will be relying on them to provide content for the museum. In fact the success of the opening led to demand for us to be open throughout the winter – and it was our partners who came through with the exhibition content.
We now need to return to basics and work out what kind of organisation we want to be and how we can fund it. Do we want to be an Accredited museum with all that entails? Or do we want to keep a more home-grown community feel? Or both and more? We haven’t yet decided.
We are entirely volunteer run. The Council renovated the museum, gave us some kit, pay our building costs and give us in-kind support. We have a contract for services with them and we deal with all other aspects of running the museum.
We have had some fundraising success locally as well as from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Awards for All and now have a sub group working on all aspects of generating income.
Being a museum
We want to work to professional standards as far as we can. We haven’t yet decided whether we want to apply for Accreditation and anyway we haven’t been operating long enough at the moment. Our collection is owned by East Lothian Council and comes under their collecting policy which is one issue we’d need to discuss first.
We are most proud of...
Opening to our July 2013 deadline and welcoming 5500 visitors, many from the local area. That led to public demand for us to remain open during the winter. And doing it all in such a short space of time.
Our advice for others
- Get plenty of support from your community.
- Take the time to work out where you want to go and plan ahead.
- We are a good example of a community group working partnership with the council and would be happy to advise others.
The Big Question
One of the most common reasons museums are not successful is over optimism when estimating how many people will visit and not providing a good enough experience to attract return visits.
The next step helps you ask the critical questions to help you determine whether your visitor services and offer mean you are a sustainable museum.
Do you have enough satisfied visitors?
Communication and interpretation
Formal and informal learning