How do we name the [non-specialists that use museums]? Are they the audience? the visitors? The users? Or guests? And because language shapes thought, and influences our communications with colleagues, what does this mean?
So here’s a start to conceptualise this – super personal, no broad sampling base but interested who else sees this (or disagrees!)
|We call them…*||Who do I hear using this term?||What can it imply that’s positive||What can it imply negatively?|
|Audience||Marketing, exhibitions, Education/Learning||Lots of them 😉
|A homogenous mass – not individuals.
Museums broadcast ‘at’ them
|Visitors||Exhibitions, marketing, Commercial||Individuals and social groups. Feels ‘real’||Fleeting and not engaged in depth|
|Users||Digital||Purposeful, driven, knowledgeable||Self-centred. Get it and leave, rather than browse and linger
|Guests||Customer service, tourism specialists||Museums should be good hosts
We might know their names.
Focus on ‘basics’ such as toilets, signage
|Being welcoming is ‘enough’
Not here to learn/engage
|Customers||Commercial, customer services||They can help the museum financially.
We can use service industry practice
|If they aint spending money we don’t care about them. Don’t value (free) web offer|
*let alone what they call us!
Some terms are preferred and socially encouraged by managers / CEOs. This can be brilliant – an org that depends on immediate financial return for its survival might do well to think of everyone as a customer.
But there are hidden downsides too. ‘What are we offering for our customers?’ doesn’t sit in the same conceptual field as ‘how are we serving our audiences?’ A team with too many terms will confuse itself. I have seen confusion between exhibition and digital teams with the word ‘users’ – user doesn’t really make sense to the showcase layout designer.
Personally, I hate hearing visitors referred to as ‘customers’, I think because in my ideal world all museum services are free and bountiful and everyone wants them. Hippy, yes. Though this is a rational overlay on something deeper I can’t articulate.
‘Guests’, however, has made me think differently. The implied obligation to host well forces a focus on the most basic Maslowian needs during exhibition development. I recently used an unexpected underspend to buy seating; I think that was influenced by thinking of ‘guests’ not ‘visitors’.
I don’t necessarily think the museum world needs to agree on one definition – the diversity is good. But I do think we need to be more aware of how we speak of visitors (my preference!) – and what that may imply to others.