The NYTimes put out a special “Museums” section this morning with a sizable feature on Dallas Museum of Art director Bonnie Pitman. She’s been a pioneer in researching how to serve museum audiences — with her own book coming in June, Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museum Experiences.
The reorientation toward audience is one of the biggest trends in museums in the last 15 years, said Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and “Bonnie represents the leading edge of this growing awareness that in order for museums to be sustainable in the future, they really have to listen to their visitors and take them into account in designing their programs.”
Pitman’s research classifies museum visitors as four types — from regular observer to outright enthusiast — and has influenced the DMA’s ventures in recent years from the Center for Creative Connection to the current exhibition, All the World’s a Stage. Actually, this thinking goes back, in part, to Pittman’s previous book from 11 years ago, Presence of Mind: Museums and the Spirit of Learning — as well as the entire effort to ‘wireless-ify’ all the DMA’s holdings, making them accessible in different formats to different visitors.
From the Art&Seek story on those efforts in August 2008:
The DMA’s ambitious effort in this regard has been called “turning the museum inside out,” and it involves, basically, putting almost everything online. The kinds of images and background data that Laura Olson found on that touch screen for that single African figure would be available for all the DMA’s 25,000 items: documents, lectures, donor background, X-rays (if available), timelines, etc. In fact, the Center for Creative Connections is not just ‘the children’s wing.’ It’s part of the DMA’s multi-million dollar research into the different ways that people – art historians, teachers, casual visitors – would handle all of this content. Patrons have different “levels of engagement” — as a DMA-sponsored study put it. So the DMA’s online “Arts Network,” as it’s called, could offer different “channels.”
In effect, as we enter an exhibition, we could pick the “easy listening” channel or the “History Channel,” depending on our need or tolerance for biographical anecdotes, curatorial interpretations, etc.