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  • Writer's pictureGabrielle Bossy

Ushering the Non-Participants

After three summers of working at a museum who is constantly visited by the same crowd of loyal followers, the question of how to attract a new clientele is a constant one that the museum attempts to answer by hosting various events: free festival days where the museum is open to the public by donation and games and activities are hosted out on the lawn, summer camps to attract youth and Poetry on the Lawn to attract an artsy crowd. In the sense of getting a new clientele out to see the museum- these events work very well. The free days attract a lower-income crowd that does not usually visit and this in itself is a triumph. Parents line up to sign their kids of for summer camp- allowing us to acculturate people at a younger age. Poetry on the Lawn attracts a diverse crowd on each Sunday of the summer months, albeit quite small. This is no small accomplishment but still, these visitors are not sustained. Most come for the event but are unlikely to return until the next one of similar type. This always puzzled me- we show off the museum so what more can we do?

It turns out a lot- and this very exciting! Two articles I read for my Public History course have pointed me in a great direction. These include Marilyn G. Hood’s article Staying Away: Why People Choose Not to Visit Museums and Nina Simon’s website post entitled Principles of Participation. Each pointed out a very valid piece of the puzzle. Hood notes that museums often serve the needs of frequent visitors very well- hence they return over and over but fails to take advantage of what occasional visitors and non-participants look for in a leisure activity. According to Hood, for these sectors, leisure is often based around a social interaction, active participation and an overall sense of feeling comfortable. It might seem obvious but to me it was a brilliant revelation! Since teens are the biggest crowd that we have problems drawing into the museum, a social interaction seemed an easy enough way and the possibilities seemed endless- coffeehouses (where teens can participate as creators or observers), historical speakers with a period of mixing and getting to know one another and maybe even a Junior Historical Society that could participate in these events for free in exchange for volunteer help at the museum (an easy way for them to reach their forty hours)! This idea that the museum alone was not enough to draw most people in changes the way one thinks about exhibit designs, events and marketing.

Moving onto Simon’s article, she further educated me on the ways that active participation can be gained in a valuable way. The biggest thing that I drew from her article was the idea that participation is not best when open-ended but rather when restrained. It fosters creativity, comfort-ability and a positive result for the participants. I’m pretty sure Jack White uses this idea with his color schemes and music- he restricts himself to a specific set of notes or colors that force him to be creative rather than overindulgent…that’s just a side note. Anyways, Simon gave some great examples- allowing people to vote on which exhibit they liked the most or which room they’d like to live in, creating rock posters from pre-made transparencies- it was a cool way of seeing how the value increased with restrictions place on it. She notes how when people are given completely open forums, they are not given the opportunity to display their best words or work and will therefore be unsatisfied with the participation despite its good intentions. I thought of a cool example of these restrictions that I saw that actually worked out really well! In the Muskoka region, professional artists have designed big murals of recreations of some of the Group of Seven’s paintings. People off the streets are invited to participate by painting in small sections of the painting with pre-mixed colors. The murals turned out beautifully and the public was highly satisfied with the results! You can read more about the project here which now focuses on an outdoor gallery experience that people can travel through the Muskoka Region and visit for free. If I had painted one of these murals I’d definitely make the trek!

The Finished Mural

Overall, these articles opened my eyes to all the different options that are available for museum professionals to bring in new demographics in exciting new ways. While it will always be important to cater to frequent visitors, the leisure values of both occasional participants and non-participants must be taken into consideration o=if we are to bring them through the doors of the museum and interest them in history and heritage in a sustainable way.

Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery. “Home.” The Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery. Ontario: Muskoka, date unknown.

Hood, Marilyn G. “Staying Away: Why People Choose not to Visit Museums.” Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. Ed. G. Anderson. New York: Altamira, 2004,150-57.

Simon, Nina. “Why Participate,” and “Principles of Participation.” The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: MUSEUM, 2010, i-32.

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