A museum, though a public institution and an educational one at that, is not a public school. Participation is voluntary, and in most cases visitors must pay to enter the site. Museums can offer a remarkable learning experience, but visitors can choose to take part or not, to return or not. In schools, attendance is required and teachers hand down extensive curriculum from above. In university classrooms, ín particular, students will be there for 9-15 weeks, have to read hundreds of pages, digest the subject material, pass examinations, earn good grades, and if they succeed, they receive a college degree. In contrast, museum visitor experíences typícally last one hour and a half, or perhaps two hours, on one single day, and there ís no tangible reward at the end of the day. They can «walk out». They might stay longer if there is a film, or some ínteractíve entertainment. And of course, most museums find ways to entice visitors to linger: the museum shops, with attractive merchandise such as books, toys, art objects, and, of course, a café. Museums have to get the message across much faster and more efficiently.
Thus questions of audience appeal become central to any museum’s purpose and to its exhibitions and educational programming strategíes. In any modern nation now, whích provides very líttle governmental funding for museums, the very survival of museums, even the best privately endowed institution, depends heavily on visitors choice. What we do has to «appeal» to our public —this is the message from the audience research specialists. And we have to engage visitors at their current level of understanding, and take them forward. We cannot talk down to, patronize, or overwhelm our visitors —who want to have learned something, and to feel good about themselves – and committed to action when they leave. At what point in this process does public education such as museums present slip into public «entertainment»? What is the difference between a museum and a Disney theme park? What compromises must we, as museum people, make to attract our visitors? And at what point do we choose to, or inadvertently slip, over the line?
As any International Museum developed, we have engaged in interminable discussions about target audiences —with respect to age, ethnicity, and contemporary public issues. We intend to attract women and men, girls and boys from every imaginable background and part of the world. How do we appeal effectively to such a broad group of people? How do we define such a «general» audience? How can one attract a global audience from a physical site in any town? We have found it easier to attract people from around the world with a virtual site, one that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from any computer with an internet connection.
How radically different, how «uncanonical» can a museum of our type become without losing its intended broad audience? We intend that our museum’s offerings be «out of the box», yet how far out of the «box» can we be? How far can we «push the envelope» conceptually without los-ing some members of our potentially limitless audience? All these questions continue to undergo careful consideration.
What sorts of themes can best bridge nations and cultures? How do we find the most illustrative, the most representative personal stories, which for the most part still exist within the context of national settings and narratives? What should be the proportional mix of history and current ¡ssues? Can we, dare we present interesting episodes in the history of women for their own cakes? As recently as 1949. Simone de Beauvoir insisted that women had no past of their own; today, a mountain of publications in women’s history proves this assessment dead wrong. Do our historical presentations have to be strictly selective, illuminating only specific current global personal’s issues? What is the best mix?
Online exhibition themes to date address these sorts of questions. With Imagining Ourselves, we targeted youngsters in their 20’s and 30’s, and invited them to give their thoughts, their art, both to our exhibition and to be vetted for an accompanying book. With Women, Power, and Politics (2007 – 2008) we selected a theme that has global ramifications, and appeal to all age groups, as does our upcoming exhibition Economica: Wormen and the Global Economy, which focuses on issues concerning people and their relationship to money worldwide.
This leads to the second, related issue, “internationalization” or, as some prefer, “globalization” and the relationship of these terms to the “national”.