Museums and Social Engagement

Mark Minelli

Ask directors of Museums to define success and they will say “have sufficient revenues to support mission-related activities and achieve significant social/educational outcomes.” Ask about strategic challenges and most will describe some combination of private-sector fundraising, reduction of government funding, changing expectations of funders, less than optimal community engagement, pressures to improve program cost-effectiveness and the need for more marketing.

But what if museums, like the proverbial frog in the saucepan, are missing important trends in the world around them? What if we are near, or even past, some boiling point that threatens the underpinnings of museums’ traditional role in society?

We believe that such a moment has arrived and that there is a critical need (and opportunity) to re-think museums and their position in today’s rapidly changing world.

Museums and social capital

Stripped of their contemporary embellishments, signature architecture, sophisticated lighting and design, fine cafes and stylish gift stores, the central foundation of museums has changed little since the eighteenth century, visitors receive privileged access to rare/beautiful/interesting things and have an experience that educates and entertains.

As a shared social construct, museums exist because we have historically shared a belief in them. A belief reinforced by their tangible presence as buildings and collections. They function as information conduits or dispensaries. Information is not dispensed in pure form, but as packaged experiences.

Until recently, museums could sustain themselves as “toll booths”, selling admission tickets, subscriptions, membership, etc., on a consumers’ path toward the information experience they offered. Because they held positions as privileged authorities with comparatively few competitors, museums tended to adopt a paternalistic posture as the authoritative voice, broadcasting information in a highly scripted narrative.

Democratization of museums

Over the past half-century, the privileged position of museums has been gradually undermined. Museums now exist as only one of many nodes in a complex network of information experiences…and society has rejected the sole, paternalistic authority in favor of multiple voices and alternative channels for information and experience.

Everyone with a connection to the internet has the power to provide information experiences and to reach a global audience. The internet has virtually erased distance, allowing widely dispersed individuals to easily join groups and collaborate with like-minded others. Because of these changes, social capital has become more dispersed, it flows more easily, and it has increased capacity to quickly and opportunistically coalesce (e.g. the Arab Spring and the Ice Bucket Challenge).

In this postmodern milieu, the most important external force affecting museums is the competition for attention. People only have a finite amount of time to pay attention to anything. “Work-life balance’ has become “work-life-digital balance” as we spend our time managing virtual networks and channel surfing information streams. We have entered the attention economy and few would question that museums are getting squeezed.

From marketing experiences to sharing aspirations

The process of de-privileging and the impact of the attention economy are not unique to museums. All institutions, including non-profits, for-profits and governments are facing similar challenges. For-profit companies understand the competition for attention as a clear threat to profitability and survival. In response, they are investing considerable resources to develop effective strategies for capturing and keeping consumers’ attention. What they are finding is that gaining insight into people’s aspirational identities as members of social networks is essential to success.

Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, observes that the conventional model for marketing products and ideas has focused on selling things and the qualities of things. He argues that a more successful and timely approach is to focus on aspirations. This explains the disproportionate success of companies like Apple, which promotes “thinking differently” and Nike, which promotes personal empowerment, “just do it.” Companies that have adopted this social-aspirational marketing approach seek to appeal, first and foremost, to consumers’ longing for identity and belonging. Aspirational experiences have a greater appeal because they have added emotional value – they make consumers feel good about who they are and the community they are part of.

Becoming a social-aspirational organization is not a matter of simply swapping out one kind of marketing strategy for another. Social-aspirational organizations are fundamentally different. Instead of pushing products at consumers, they focus on supporting aspirational identities and creating affinity between people in a shared community. In conventional marketing, brand is a banner for organizational identity. In social-aspirational marketing, brand is a handshake and promise of a shared identity and community. In conventional marketing, brand is a component of strategy. In social-aspirational marketing, brand is strategy.

Members of social-aspirational groups are not the same as market segments but cut across them. A Harley-Davidson owner could be a corporate CEO or a Hell’s Angel or anyone else who identifies with nonconformity, individuality, freedom and power. Locating an organization’s social aspiration begins by looking closely at the diversity of people already closely affiliated and better understanding their shared aspirational values. Those values become the assembly points for constructing communications and activities to strengthen brand affiliation.

Executing brand-as-strategy is a process that employs brand champions and emotional motivators. The most effective brand champions are individuals who identify strongly with the organization or company and inspire others with inspirational stories about how their aspirational values are being realized. Employing inspirational brand champions is one tactic but is not enough, inspiration needs to be paired with emotional motivators to draw people toward the brand community. The motivators most relevant to museums include people’s desire to stand out from the crowd, feel a sense of belonging, achieve an idealized self-image and lead a meaningful life. For a social-aspirational organization, every point of contact with people is a critical opportunity to trigger these emotional responses.

Museums as social-aspirational organizations

It is ironic that companies that sell computers, tennis shoes and toothpaste are wrapping their products in social-aspirational brands, while many museums still project brand messaging that echo an earlier era of institutional privilege, variations of “we’re important, we have important things, you should want to visit and, if you do, your life will be better.”

Museums who seize the opportunity to appeal to peoples’ aspirational self-image will attract social capital, stay relevant and increase their value as a participant in civic and cultural life. Far more convincingly than a toothpaste company, museums should be able to articulate and project an aspirational cause bigger than themselves, a cause with deep emotional resonance among the people it seeks to serve. This cannot be achieved with superficial changes. Only through systemic realignment of purpose and priorities, will museums become social-aspirational communities with the power to engage, evolve and grow.

The core vision for museums as social-aspirational organizations is an amplification of what they have always been — powerful engines to create understanding and meaning. More than ever before, museums have the means to meet people where they are, not to sell them things but to help them achieve their potential within a community of others who are on a similar journey.

In the end, what matters most for museums is less about objects and more about the authentic value they add to peoples’ lives and the authentic relationships they nurture. Armed with these priorities, museums can help lead a world-changing enterprise, a massive collaborative and ongoing project to explore creativity and culture, share stories, elicit new and ennobling narratives, elevate society and catalyze deeper meaning in people’s lives.

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Minelli, Inc. work with museums includes: Peabody Essex Museum, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Newark Museum, Currier MuseumICA Boston and Museum of Science Boston.