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Curatorial vs. Marketing in Museums

Curatorial vs. Marketing

There’s a tension that arises so frequently in museums that it seems natural and almost unavoidable: the curatorial team and the marketing (communications) team struggle to get along.

This dynamic is not unique to museums. It’s actually a version of one of the most common tensions in any kind of organization: product people (curators, in this case) see the world differently and have a very different role to play from marketing and communications people. Both the product and the marketing people need the customer. Both groups are intimately involved with the customer. What they do with the customer and the nature of that interaction, however, are very different. This can lead to an unfortunate and often unnecessary conflict between two teams that should be working to achieve shared goals.

curatorial vs marketing in museum setting

[Note: I’m using the generic terms “customer,” “product,” and “marketing” instead of visitor, exhibition/program, and communications to highlight my belief that these principles are true in nearly all organizational settings. Feel free to substitute visitor/guest/patron for customer, exhibition/program/experience for product, and communications for marketing as we go.]

Curators succeed when they are able to expand the customer’s mind and deliver a captivating idea. Devising the best way to engage and enlighten the customer is a huge challenge and it’s critical work. Fortunately, exhibitions afford curators an extended time to do this work, in an environment they can tightly control, and with an audience that has already opted in to the experience. Marketers have a very different challenge with very different operating conditions. They’re the ones charged with getting people to opt in to the experience.

Unlike curators, marketers cannot be in the business of educating. Marketers do not have the kind of time with the customer that would allow them to make a nuanced case. They have very limited means. The project of marketing is, by necessity, highly reductive: only a simple message can reach its intended target through the torrent of competing marketing messages. For museum professionals, such reductiveness can feel unsatisfying or even painful.

Curators succeed when they are able to engage and educate the customer. But marketers cannot be in the business of educating.

That’s a major reason why museums tend to prefer “communications,” specifically PR, to marketing. Communications is much closer to the curatorial mode. An article in the paper, for example, shares the opt-in aspect and also affords the time to deliver a more nuanced, even educational, message. These are familiar qualities and so they tend to inspire curatorial happiness—provided the reporter “got the idea right.”

The tensions inherent in this divergent function and perspective between curatorial and marketing are aggravated by educational and personality differences. There are also common structural and hierarchical issues at play since most museum directors come up through the curatorial track rather than the marketing track. Curators are, by trade, academics who probably have advanced degrees in art history or theory, or are themselves artists. Marketers may have a degree in communications, but they can come from a much wider variety of academic backgrounds.

A museum’s product is not simply the objects but the visitor experience in its totality. When thought of in this way, authority between curatorial and marketing becomes much more balanced.

If a museum’s product is defined as the objects it displays, there is no question that the curator rightfully claims greater authority than the marketer. But I contend that the product is not simply the objects. It is, rather, the visitor experience in its totality. When thought of in this way, authority between curatorial and marketing becomes much more balanced.

Whose value?

Considering the nature of a museum’s product brings me back to a recent client workshop. One of our marketing strategy questions is always, “How will this exhibition be able to deliver value differently than its competitors?” Yes, exhibitions compete. They compete for visitors, attention, word-of-mouth—and not just with other exhibitions but also with many other cultural outlets like plays, concerts or films. In that competition, what does your product offer that the customer values and that she cannot obtain elsewhere? You may recognize this as a value proposition, and it’s usually easy to list all the things we have on offer—all the things we are trying to sell. But the question is about what the customer values, which is harder to answer than it seems.

What does your exhibition offer that the customer values and that she cannot obtain elsewhere?

For an upcoming exhibition, our client’s workshop yielded an answer that leapt out at me: Challenging conventional narratives.

Thanks to brilliant curation, this is certainly something that the exhibition will do. It is not, however, what I—the customer—am intending to buy when I choose to go to this exhibition as opposed to taking my kids to a movie, for example, as an alternative to visiting the art museum.

It’s curators explaining a feature of a product that they are proud of. This is very different from a benefit that I know I want and can get and will therefore lead me to attend this particular exhibition instead of going to a matinee. In making my decision to go to the museum, I have to see the anticipated value as greater than that of the alternative or of me just keeping the time for myself and going for a walk in the park. Marketing’s job is to express that value as a benefit that I—the customer—can easily see.

It has to be easy for the customer.

I have not opted in yet. I am still a prospect. I have lots and lots of options. I am easily distracted. I am not going to invest any time trying to understand a thing I am not interested in.

This is the harsh reality faced by marketers.

Trying to convince me that I should want something because it will be good for me is sales, not marketing.

If you make it complicated for me, I’ll just advance to the next option where someone has done a better job of communicating to me why I should care and offering me what I know that I want. Trying to convince me that I should want something because it will be good for me is sales, not marketing. This is a distinction we return to again and again in our work with clients.

An exhibition can be thought of as the curator selling an idea to the customer. Marketing, by contrast, does not convince or change minds. It has to work with what’s already there in the customer’s mind. I understand how awful this sounds to a curator. It’s why marketing feels so “lowest common denominator,” so dumbed down.

Back to “challenging conventional narratives”

Customers—even very sophisticated ones—are not shopping for unconventional narratives. They are not comparing which museum’s narratives will be more unconventional and choosing that one. They are not having this internal dialog: “Let’s see, I have three hours to kill. I’m in the mood for a cultural activity. I can get some conventional narratives at the Met or I could have some more unconventional narratives at the Guggenheim. Unconventional it is!”

The correct expression of how you deliver value must be customer-centric rather than curator-centric.

“Challenging conventional narratives” is clearly insider speak. The correct expression of how you deliver value must be customer-centric rather than curator-centric. What’s the translation of that same benefit into something a customer would recognize as a thing they value?

What gets a customer to go to an exhibition differs dramatically from what we want the customer to get out of their visit. The critical curatorial responsibility of enlightening the customer should not be confused with the marketing task of finding ways to translate curators’ work into terms that hew as close as possible to the needs of that customer. Marketing must examine value from the vantage point of an uninformed, undereducated, minimally attentive prospect. This work must be done prior to any real experience with the exhibition—no preexisting knowledge of what it is or why it’s so great. Marketing has to convey something that connects to a need, curiosity or interest that I—the prospective customer—already have.

Pin this notion in your brain: “No one buys what we sell. They buy what is of value to them.” You’ve heard this from me before, but it’s a constant battle that has to be re-waged in every engagement because marketing must always work almost exclusively with what is already there in the customer’s mind. That’s the job. The job of marketing is not to sell the exhibition. That’s the curator’s job once the customer is already walking through the exhibit. If curators have done this job well, the customer will go out and tell their friends and this in turn makes the marketer’s job easier!

The job of marketing is not to sell the exhibition. That’s the curator’s job once the customer is already walking through the exhibit.

Marketing has the difficult job of capturing people off the street or luring them out of their homes by creatively connecting to passions and interests that are already theirs. If marketing succeeds, then there can be a handoff from marketing to curatorial and the selling of the curator’s idea can begin. Minds can then—and only then—begin to be opened and improved.

A test of curatorial and marketing collaboration

So there is good reason for curatorial and marketing to operate as a team. That may sound obvious, but it’s difficult to make it true. As a starting point for improving the working relationship between curatorial and marketing in your museum, consider the following 10 questions:

  1. Are we setting shared goals that coordinate the efforts of curatorial, marketing and others?
  2. Are curatorial and marketing comfortable holding each other mutually accountable for the achievement or failure to achieve these goals?
  3. Are all functional units (marketing, development, curatorial, education, programs, finance, safety) at the table in the early planning and goal-setting phases and then periodically along the way?
  4. Is sufficient time set aside to explain the curatorial ideas and vision for an exhibition to the other functional units of the organization?
  5. Is the strategy, including audience selection, worked out prior to finalizing and naming an exhibition?
  6. Is customer insight being brought back into curatorial discussions?
  7. Are we measuring what matters and using that data for purposes of planning and improvements, and have we agreed on what measurements are most useful for gauging both curatorial and marketing success?
  8. Are we taking the time to have an honest postmortem assessment of every exhibition asking why we did or did not accomplish what we set out to?
  9. Is there active coordination among exhibition design, wayfinding and marketing materials so that the customer is never confused?
  10. In general, do we actively cultivate professional empathy among the organization’s functional units?

Some of these practices may seem impractical, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to do better? How can we best enhance our operational capacity to deliver on our museum’s mission? In writing this article, I hope to suggest that there is great benefit in looking more closely at the level of collaboration you have achieved between the curatorial and marketing functions at your museum.

We have a workshop to help museums work as an interdisciplinary team and to help cultivate the practices that inspired the article. Email us for more information.

Photo by Chris Sabor

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  1. Bob Beatty says:

    HUZZAH for this thoughtful, well-written piece. I’m actually going to send it to my students in my Business of Museums course, and probably add it to my readings going forward. It’s *that* good and *that* sharp and focused.

    One thing I will do in my own mind is change “curatorial” to “mission-related” b/c in this day & age, the curators don’t carry the sway they used to (certainly not in history museums, my bailiwick) and my own experience tells me that those of us in mission-related activities—collections, education, exhibitions—do differ in how we approach the value proposition from marking/PR/communications folks.

    You put it so clearly with your “unconventional narrative” example.

    Well done!

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