Those “new” trends that need to be embraced within cultural organizations? They aren’t new at all…so let’s stop being scared of them.
If you work within a cultural organization, then you are probably aware of some of the new, big trends and ideas confronting organizations right now: Making organizations more participatory and social, embracing innovation, securing word-of-mouth engagement in our connected world, and framing collections so that they are right-now relevant. Sometimes it feels like organizations may never be able to successfully welcome and adopt these new changes…
Here’s the thing, though – none of those are new concepts.
The very first museums were founded on many of these ideas. In reality, solitary experiences, primarily showcasing the past, and relying on traditional marketing channels to get the word out are the new concepts. What organizations are trying to do today may simply be examples of returning to their roots.
Here are three of the oldest, “new” trends with which organizations are currently wrestling:
1) Solitary experiences are new (Social experiences are old)
Let’s start with arguably the best example of a type of cultural organization that underscores “existing in silence and appreciating the art” – classical music organizations. I’ve told this story once, but it is worth repeating: I was with the IMPACTS team in a meeting with Stanford University discussing the engagement of students and community members alike in classical music. The group began discussing opportunities around “shaking up” the way that audiences experience classical music, and the merits of making the concert-going experience more “social.” One of the University’s leaders suddenly exclaimed, “It’s getting back to performing Handel in the same, social way that the music was experienced in Handel’s time!”
We all stopped in our tracks. We thought being social in this environment was more of a new idea. Lifting the demand for silence at certain programs? Serving food (chewing while listening)? World-class musicians performing important, inspiring, and moving pieces while listeners mingle? Many might consider that sacrilegious!
In reality, the concept of orchestrating isolated cultural experiences in shared spaces is the relatively new idea. In Handel’s time, music was enjoyed socially – audiences ate, drank, and generally partook in all sorts of merriment while musicians filled the concert hall with beautiful melodies. Why is being social in shared spaces considered “new” when it was the very way that many types of art were originally intended to be enjoyed, discussed, and explored?
After all, dedicated listening to classical music only accounts for 20.9% of all classical music listening activity – and the behavior doesn’t vary as dramatically between students (i.e. “young people”) and non-students as some might suspect. Some organizations may choose to focus their programmatic offerings to try to fit into that 20.9% of their audiences’ dedicated listening time…but why not create programs to include the other 79.1%?
The data below represent the classical music listening behaviors of 915 undergraduate students, and 2,115 non-student adults living in the San Francisco Bay Designated Market Area. The commonality of behavior is particularly interesting as students and non-students alike spend approximately 80% of their time listening to classical music while also doing something else.
These data are particularly interesting because they indicate self-selected cultural behaviors. Classical music listeners – arguably among the most “traditional” of contemporary cultural participants – report that only about 1/3 of their time spent engaging with content is experienced in a state of solitude (e.g. dedicated listening or while reading). The balance of their engagement invites connection and a public context – while traveling, while dining, while cooking, while exercising. For the vast majority of time for its listeners, classical music accompanies another activity or supports a social context…it is not a dedicated activity.
Yet, too many organizations that present classical music create environments focused solely on dedicated listening, and, indeed, actively dissuade a social context. And these organizations are not alone – there seems to exist a false dogma in some organizations that dedicated, solitary experiences are the preferred way to engage with a cultural experience. The data suggest otherwise. The fact that the earliest art museums may have started as private collections viewable only to those close to the collector further highlights the importance of social connection. Viewing these collections required a connection to another person. Perhaps the audiences of Handel’s time had it right – culture may be a component of a greater, social experience.
Not convinced of the power of social interactions in cultural organizations? Consider: Data suggest that who people are with is more important than what they see at an organization, and social interactions significantly increase visitor satisfaction.
2) Traditional media for marketing purposes is new (Securing earned endorsement from visitors is old)
The concept of embracing digital engagement feels like a big change…so much so that non-marketing staff members seem to be “not my job-ing” it in many institutions. But let’s look past the relatively new creations of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and consider what these digital platforms actually do and why they are so influential: They allow for the increased potential to connect people and share messages.
The advent of digital engagement platforms did not create a new phenomenon – it provided a way to more effectively tap into the motivators of human behavior that have always been there. Earned media and reviews from trusted resources (like those that take place on digital platforms) drive visitation to cultural organizations. Again, this model of diffusion isn’t new – it’s how reputations have always been earned and promulgated. After all, how else could museums secure attendance before the development of radio and television advertising? (That’s a trick question. Access to collections of artwork in particular was often a matter of connections to the people running the collections, which again leads us to the importance of word of mouth endorsement. There likely wouldn’t have been ads for these particular types of institutions before they were more broadly accessible.)
Regular readers know that I love this data. Note that what people say about your organization (the coefficient of imitation (Q)) is 12.85 times more important in determining reputation than what you pay to say about yourself (the coefficient of innovation (P)) – And reputation is a driver of visitation to cultural organizations.
Spinach is to Popeye as social media is to word of mouth endorsement. Here. Allow me to take this metaphor too far:
Social media is about engaging people. It is not about computers or cells phones. In the cartoon above, think of computers (or “technology”) as the can. It’s not the can that makes Popeye strong. It’s the connectivity potential of what is in it. In a 1800s version of this cartoon, the can would be a marketplace and the spinach would be a friend communicating a face-to-face recommendation to attend a cultural event. Indeed, that same spinach is still just as good today, but that spinach has never been “traditional media.” Comparatively, “traditional media” as a motivator is a new concept – and it plays a different role in motivating visitation.
3) Focusing on the past is new (Innovation and informing future discoveries is old)
Being innovative often gets a bad rep as being risky more than being necessary for cultural organizations, and the task of being relevant may be beginning to sound like jargon. But cultural organizations have always been equally about the future as they are about the past. The goals of inspiring wonder and curiosity are equally beholden to history as they are to a hopeful future. Thinking that cultural organizations are more about the past than the future or the present is a new idea…and maybe that’s why we can’t seem to shake that “boring” stereotype.
Many of the world’s early museums were cabinets of curiosities. These cabinets of curiosities were collections that often consisted of artifacts and also new discoveries – or curious objects with histories yet to be uncovered and stories yet to be told. There was an element of these collections that was current and thus real-time relevant. Instead of simply “teaching” folks about things that we already knew, they were often collections focused on what we were finding out. Think of it as perhaps collecting puzzle pieces to inform the world in which we live. I think that cultural organizations might struggle less with relevance if we thought of ourselves as providers of clues and summoners of curiosity…and less like archaic teachers.
Even today, what seems to be picked up and discussed most regarding museums is how they impact our future knowledge. When we can bridge the gap and demonstrate how the past may inform the future (or the present), that’s when we are most relevant. That’s common sense and it’s not new. It’s not an “innovative” concept. We were once encyclopedic collections of things that made folks feel like discoverers and knowledge collectors…not places that made folks feel like they were being “informed.”
I think focusing on the past (as opposed to how the past connects to the present) is dangerous. I think that’s what is holding us back and may be providing an excuse for some institutions to be lazy, and to even complain about the need to be relevant. Why would any cultural organization complain about the need to be relevant?!
Relevance, connective experiences, and operating based upon earned endorsements are among the oldest attributes of cultural organizations – and that’s great news! It means that we can give them a little bit less strength as overwhelming forces.
It means we’ve totally got this.