Change in Museums

As museums and heritage attractions prepare to relaunch in a world without tourists, many will need to find ways to engage a local market that has lapsed. Dan Anderson describes a dynamic model of the resident market which points to the importance of regular product renewal.

One of the recurring issues we encounter is museums that are under the impression they are popular with tourists but ‘local people don’t visit’. They make their peace with this by telling themselves that people take for granted what is in their own backyard; they might visit a museum when they’re on holiday, but they won’t behave like a tourist when they’re at home.

The data usually doesn’t bear this out. Attractions that seemingly have the hardest time attracting residents, often have the opposite problem. It’s not that local people don’t visit. The problem is that they all visit – once. They just don’t come back. When he was director of the Science Museum, Sir Neil Cossons famously summed it up: ‘A boy will come here three times in his life – with his father, as a father, and as a grandfather.’

As we emerge from lockdown, attractions will need to reconnect with their local audience. They should also take this opportunity to think about how they maintain that connection in the long term.

There have traditionally been just three ways to generate repeat visits from the same customers:

  • Marketing promotions
  • Events and exhibitions
  • Product renewal

The first two are self-explanatory, so I want to focus on the third.

‘Product renewal’ is how consultants say ‘change’. Routinely changing the experience keeps people interested, which brings them back. For all the research into different promotions and exhibitions, there is remarkably little investigation of how ‘change’ affects the market.

What type of change is needed? How often? How effective is it?

A dynamic model of the resident market

Our misunderstanding of the resident market starts with our assumption that it is static. We assume the market only changes over a very long horizon through the natural ‘churn’ of births, deaths and migration. This makes for simple modelling, but it’s a poor reflection of reality. In truth, the market changes much faster than that, because the museum itself is changing it.

Consider a UK city with a population of, say, 500,000 residents. We narrow that market down to those who would potentially visit a museum. Exclude people who are too young or too old or who have such a low interest in heritage that they cannot reasonably be expected to visit. Let’s say that leaves us a viable market of 400,000 people.

Now launch or re-launch your museum. What happens?

In Year 1, the museum attracts 20,000 residents (a market ‘penetration rate’ of 5%).

In Year 2, however, the market has changed. It now contains 20,000 people who visited the previous year. And having just visited, those 20,000 people go from having the highest propensity to visit, to the lowest – so low, in fact, that we might as well exclude them altogether. There are not many people, after all, who visit the same museum two years in a row. So, let’s assume that 95% of residents who visited in Year 1 will almost certainly not visit in Year 2. Our resident population drops from 400,000 to 381,000.

Then the same thing happens in Year 2. With the same penetration rate of 5%, the museum attracts just 19,000 residents. And we can expect that 95% of them will not visit in Year 3, which further reduces the resident population.

This cycle continues, year after year.

Fortunately, that ‘decay’ in the market is not indefinite and it is not linear. If it were, then we’d run out of people. We must assume that, as time passes, people who previously visited can be persuaded to visit again.

That’s the key question about change: how much time must pass for someone to be persuaded to re-visit and what can a museum do to accelerate that process?

Jack and Jill (won’t) go to the Museum

A simple thought experiment can help.

Imagine you decide one day to visit your local museum. You invite your friend Jack, but Jack says he just visited the museum last year and he’d prefer to do something else.

That’s not an unreasonable thing for Jack to say. Museums don’t generally change that quickly and he can’t be faulted for thinking that the experience this year will be broadly the same as last year. It would be churlish to criticise Jack for not wanting to visit when there are so many other theatres, cinemas, restaurants, beaches, pubs and country parks – not to mention other museums – to occupy his time.

So, you call your other friend, Jill. Jill also says that she’d rather not go, because she too has already visited the museum – but that was 30 years ago on a school trip. This time, the excuse is a little hollow. The museum must be unrecognisable to what it was 30 years ago and, even if it isn’t, Jill is a completely different person now.

Jack and Jill are opposite ends of a spectrum. They both claim to have ‘been there already’, but one explanation sounds reasonable and the other doesn’t – and the only difference is the amount of time that has elapsed since their last visit. There must be a point on this continuum – between one and thirty years – where the statement ‘I have been there already’ stops being meaningful.

Is that after five years? After ten? After fifteen or twenty?

That depends on the museum and the rate at which the experience changes. Call that variable the ‘rate of product renewal’ (ROPR) and let’s define it – for the sake of argument – as the time it takes for the museum to refresh at least one-third of its permanent displays.

Figure 1, below, shows the time it takes for that first group of 12,000 resident visitors to re-enter the market under three different scenarios: one where the museum changes very quickly (5-year rate of product renewal); one where it changes very slowly (15-years); and one in between (10-years).

This dynamic view of consumer behaviour affects how we understand the resident market (Figure 2). Every year people fall out of the market because they have just visited. But there are also people re-entering the market because enough time has passed since their last visit. Eventually the in’s and out’s cancel each other out and the population stabilises. The longer that process takes, the smaller the population of potential visitors.

This is what we see in practice. New museums tend to open strongly, before visitor numbers fall and stabilise at a lower level. Management interprets this as lower penetration of the resident market (i.e. ‘local people don’t visit’). But that’s not really what’s happening. The museum may still be attracting a consistent 5% of the resident market – it’s just that the market has shrunk. Their market is now full of ‘Jills’ who feel they don’t need to visit because they saw it on a school trip.

It is, of course, possible to sustain visitor numbers – even grow them – through special events and exhibitions. But good programming is expensive and smaller museums don’t always have the space, budget or staff time to mount one exhibition after another. It can also create a ‘major exhibit cycle’ – brilliantly explained here by the peerless Colleen Dilenschneider – where people start deferring visits in the expectation of some new exhibition. Some of the great French museums like Musée d’Orsay, Musée des Beaux-Arts and Centre Pompidou are already planning post-lockdown strategies that eschew the blockbuster exhibition for a more frequent re-interpretation of their permanent collections.

A little change goes a long way

UK museums could be thinking along similar lines, but they will need to take steps to make routine ‘change’ a part of the operational and curatorial culture.

  • Design for change. Exhibition designers should be briefed to ensure that they don’t create environments that are so bespoke and complex that they take a lifetime and a fortune to change. Low-cost adaptability may not be much fun for designers, but it will be better for the museum.
  • Fix your back-of-house. This is good advice for funders as well as museums. Conservation and storage projects aren’t ‘exciting’, and they don’t have a direct impact on the all-important ‘public access’ metrics. But this is often the bottleneck that prevents change from happening. Museums aren’t retailers that can just swap the stock around at will. Cataloguing, collections care, documentation and digitisation are all part of the product renewal process and many museums are hamstrung by chronic underinvestment in their back-of-house. There is no point designing for change if the museum doesn’t even know what it has in its collection or where to find it. Funders shouldn’t be so reticent about supporting storage projects, so long as the endgame is to produce a better public experience. Even the Mendoza Review of museums in England (2017) concluded that ‘storage projects that protect the collection can be just as important to the visitor experience’.
  • Take your time. Museums are, by nature, storytellers. That doesn’t mean you need to tell the whole story all the time and all at once. I once worked with a car company considering a museum for its collection of classic cars and memorabilia. When they finished describing the collection, I remember saying: ‘You’ve either just described a 12,000 sqm building, or you’ve described 40 years’ worth of stories’ (…naturally, they went with the first option, the budget spiralled, and the project was scrapped). To labour the storytelling analogy, maybe your museum doesn’t need to be a Dickensian novel – maybe you should think of it more as an anthology of good short stories. Tell one story, let people visit, then tell another.
  • Be relevant. One of the best assets that museums have is the extraordinary trust that people place in them. We don’t trust the media, we’re tired of experts, and we don’t believe politicians or big business – but survey after survey shows that people trust museums. That’s more than just an opportunity – it’s arguably a responsibility for museums to be socially engaged and use their collections to help people make sense of the world. We are now seeing very clearly which museums understand this and are equipped to react, and which have been paralysed by the shock of COVID-19. Too many museums have been reduced to a solemn homepage regretting their closure and asking for donations. But the Museum of Oxford is busily harvesting objects, stories, photos, even the ‘zoom party’ recordings that will one day define this moment in history. Biggin Hill Memorial Museum quickly pivoted to ‘armchair explorer’ activities to help home-schooling parents. Others have raided their archives to contextualise this pandemic by telling us how we experienced the 1918 Spanish Flu. Museums could be this relevant all the time – we shouldn’t wait for a crisis to shake us out of our slumber.

In the short term, museums – like cinemas, theatres and concert halls – will struggle to combat the perception of being ‘unsafe’ spaces. People will flock to beaches, parks, and large public spaces where they can comfortably socialise at a distance, but they will continue to avoid indoor experiences. Now is a time for museums to come out of their box, finding new ways to reconnect with their local market: not just on-site, but off-site and online too. And once that connection has been re-established, they need to nurture and sustain it – by staying relevant, fresh and ever-changing.