The Newport Historical Society is a collections and knowledge-based institution that seeks to educate the public about topics we think they care about. In short, while we are a multifaceted organization, we are more or less a museum.
We are therefore, extremely interested in current explorations of the value of museums to society. But, for all of the obvious and expected expositions on the value of Museums – they are educational, they create a sense of wonder, they foster insight and understanding – I am not entirely sure that we truly know what museums are good at, and what they are good for. And in what is perhaps an even more relevant question, we must ask: how will museums remain valuable as the world inevitably changes?
Data collected from a variety of sources tells us that museum attendance, while up at some museums and down at others, is not growing, nationally, and may be falling as our population ages and changes. Certainly, we know that at our institution, “in real life” visitation at the Museum of Newport History is gently falling, even as our virtual visitation grows.
When I think about addressing this issue I begin by asking myself how we are framing the question we wish to explore. Because, of course, the way you frame a question will often naturally suggest the answer. I will argue, for example (and against some of my colleagues), that I think a likely reason for declining attendance is not just that potential visitors do not know how wonderful museums are, but rather that museums might be finding it difficult to change in ways that keep them accessible and relevant to the public. In other words, it is not “what’s wrong with them?” but rather, “what could we do better for them?”
There are some interesting ideas within the field about change in the museum world that may provide useful analytic frameworks. For example, it has been suggested that museums, as “keepers,” find change comfortable when they are adding new things to their repertoires, but really, really, uncomfortable when they think about deleting things they have always done.
So we are very comfortable being told that we need to add new, often digital offerings. And if we find that they do not move the needle in terms of audience and funding, we think we need to add something else (say, a podcast). But we do not ask ourselves if what we are doing, across the board, is still of real interest to a broad audience. It may be that we have methods and programs that are just not that interesting, or financially sustainable, any more.
Consequently, the suggestion, often made, that NHS “just needs a bigger museum” may in fact be true, but it bears examining. The NHS Board and staff will be doing just this beginning in 2019. As we do so, we will question our museum audiences and participate in national surveys. We will use our new web presences to explore the needs and interests of our growing digital audiences. We will think hard about how our local community is comprised of residents with diverse needs and interests, and a large natural audience of tourists, who come here for a variety of reasons, and with expectations for their visit that are not always well documented.
Good data has a great way of challenging expectations as well as informing decision-making. As we look at the current data about our visitation, it is clear that a digital presence for Newport’s history must be an important component of any future work. But the growth in our History Space program’s reach demonstrates that there is value, right now, in in-person living history experiences, when done right. As we ask ourselves that hard question about how we can be our best, it is interesting that both new technologies and a classic interpretive technique are both appealing to our audiences.
We will incorporate all we are learning into developing plans for how the NHS continues to deliver Newport County’s history to a growing public audience. Watch this space!