Museum Visibility: What’s the Problem?

Museum Visibility Jane Austin's House

Museum visibility

In this third installation of our series on museums, place, and branding, I’d like to examine the issue of museum visibility.

When I first moved back to New York in early 2013, I called Washington Heights my home for a few months. Here, I lived not five blocks from a beautiful pre-Revolutionary War mansion turned cultural institution that has served the public as a museum since the turn of the century.

Do we just not care about historic house museums?

The museum in question is the lovely Morris-Jumel Mansion, a historic house museum. It is a site of considerable importance, and yet I remained completely ignorant of its existence until many months into my residency when my roommate pointed it out to me.

Why had it been invisible to me before? If I had lived around the corner from the MoMA, could I have somehow missed it?

What is the issue here? Do we just not care about historic house museums? Or is it something more like “Who needs to go there when I can go to the Met?”

When a museum fails to call attention to itself, I simply don’t see it.

For those in the museum world, relevancy lies at the heart of a question you should always be asking from the perspective of your audience: “Why should I care?”

Within the museum world (with the exclusion of those that address this as part of their institutional mission) there seems to be some reluctance to engage with contemporary culture in a deep way. But if you take a look at the museums that are thriving, you will find a willingness to do just that. What I observe when I look to the museums that are flourishing now is a conscious responsiveness to and engagement with contemporary issues and concerns.

Clearly, not every institution is heavily engaged with the contemporary dialogue, and to my mind this begs the following question: Is the fear of loss of dignity as an institution stunting the growth—or effectively signing the death sentence—of some really wonderful museums?

Instead of fighting the pull of contemporary culture, I believe that it’s actually crucial that museums find ways to insert themselves into it. This can be done in a manner that does not jeopardize their brand, but gives them a much louder voice than saying I am here! This is one important way for museums to nurture the connection with their audience and expand their reach.

Instead of fighting the pull of contemporary culture, I believe that it’s actually crucial that museums find ways to insert themselves into it.

For those in the museum world, relevancy lies at the heart of a question you should always be asking from the perspective of your audience: “Why should I care?”

It’s easy for those working on the inside of an institution to become a little blind to the needs of the consumer and get wrapped up in the narrow view of “Look at our exhibits! Who wouldn’t want to come see them?”

As a visitor, I am giving you my time. I am volunteering to spend something I value on you. It is essential that I understand how your offer is of value to me so that the transaction makes sense. I must be able to see the benefit and understand how it relates to me. You are not going to change my behaviors without extraordinary effort on your part. So the logical place to start is where I am, not where you would like me to be. Thus, your first task if you want me is to start the conversation with my interests. Otherwise, you don’t have me, and are essentially invisible.

Now, in the museum-going audience, interests admittedly vary—I may be curious about French impressionism while you are interested in feudal Japan. But what is the one thing that is relevant to me and nearly everyone else? Contemporary culture.

Make what you offer connect to what I care about. History is fascinating, relevant and worth spending my time exploring, but the burden is on you to show me this.

Morris-Jumel Museum recently hosted a Downton Abbey-themed tea party. It was a good example of finding a connection that makes sense, a way of incorporating popular culture into the programs of the museum, and thus finding a way to pull me in.

Make what you offer connect to what I care about. History is fascinating, relevant and worth spending my time exploring, but the burden is on you to show me this truth, and we have to start the conversation first.

… I am here, waiting for you to dangle a carrot.

Location, location, location

In addition to finding a path to relevancy, another important consideration for all museums and historic houses is location. A recent article in the New York Times brought this into focus, using the now-shuttered National Centre for Popular Music as an example. Sheffield, England simply did not have much to offer in the way of tourist attractions, and this ambitious museum, with its sprawling modern architecture and enormous budget could not change that on its own. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the museum was off brand for Sheffield, a working-class industrial town.

Other factors such as the marketing of the museum surely played a role as well, but it seems clear that location was key in its failure to thrive.

I suspect this has a lot to do with why Morris-Jumel Mansion didn’t show up on my radar in all my years as a New Yorker. Before moving to Washington Heights I had only visited the area maybe once or twice with my family for very specific purposes, and my reaction when we did visit was telling: “Is this still Manhattan?”

Many residents of Manhattan and Brooklyn may find it difficult to get to this area. There is some validity to this, but there are stronger, less tangible barriers at play. Unfortunately, there are strong undercurrents of learned prejudice that prevent potential visitors from venturing into largely Hispanic and black neighborhoods.

Fear of the unknown is an extremely strong deterrent to action.

On top of this, there’s a general lack of familiarity with Washington Heights and Harlem—people don’t know the area. Fear of the unknown is an extremely strong deterrent to action. And in this case, Morris-Jumel Mansion just happens to be located in a part of the city that the museum-going crowd is simply not familiar with.

So, what’s to be done? My gut tells me that historic house museums and all museums that find themselves in a less-than-ideal location must do one of two things: One approach is to focus on the immediate area. Provide customized, tangible benefits to those who live nearby. Don’t look over their heads to some outside more “ideal” audience. Reach out with creative programming, events involving food, music, and activities that will specifically appeal to and engage the community that you have next door. Love the ones you’re with.

Many of today’s ‘successful museums’ have proactively sought to engage in relationship-building with their local communities—being responsive and relevant to their needs and desires.

I recently spoke with Jo Ann Secor, former Program Director at Staten Island Children’s Museum, about strategies for increasing the visibility and attendance at museums, and she eloquently reiterated this point: “Research has identified the misconception that museums thrive by having a strong tourist base..not true. Many of today’s ‘successful museums’ have proactively sought to engage in relationship-building with their local communities—being responsive and relevant to their needs and desires. Empowering the local community to become a part of shaping and forming programming, special events and, in some instances, exhibitions, that are closely reflective of and aligned with their own interests, provides for a win-win situation for both parties.”

This line of thinking has been a critical part of our strategy in working with some of our clients, such as the Bronx Museum.

Another strategy, which operates at a lower level, but does not call for a change of audience and offer, is to emphasize both the ease of access to the museum (incidentally, the C train will basically drop you at Morris-Jumel Mansion’s doorstep), and to explicitly highlight the offer most compelling to the audience you aim to reach, which for Morris-Jumel most likely resides elsewhere in Manhattan. There may be a trim tab for Morris-Jumel that has only to be discovered by, as Rory Sutherland points out, taking the time to “sweat the small stuff.”

The Downton Abbey tea party is probably going to bring in those who currently frequent institutions like the Met or New-York Historical Society, and already have an interest in history. But it may not attract someone who lives a few blocks away and yet has never been to a museum.

This decision, whether to focus on the local community and/or the general museum-going crowd is significant. If whatever you are doing now is not working, switching gears, though scary at first, may prove—like an illusionist’s trick—to make what was invisible, plain as day.

Does your museum need an affordable way to improve its brand today?

Because we know that not everyone needs or can afford our full process, we created a guided tutorial package for our foundational brand strategy tool: the Brand Pyramid. Watch the video for a preview.

brand strategy tutorial

For more information on this brand strategy tutorial, visit here where you will find a fuller explanation and link to a free download of the first video.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock: home of Jane Austen (1775-1817) in Chawton, Hampshire, UK

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7 thoughts on “Museum Visibility: What’s the Problem?

  1. Emmie says:

    The writer’s me, me, me, me attitude it so typical of her generation — if it’s not thrown right in front of their face, then it’s not their fault. Don’t you have a little bit of responsibility to find out about your own neighborhood? If your roommate pointed it out to you, then why had it escaped you? Perhaps you are not being present in your own neighborhood? Oh, is that the museum’s fault too? Has the writer visited the museum that is in her neighborhood yet?

    I live in a tiny town — there’s an old miner’s house a block from me that I visit once or twice a year. Gustav Stickley’s home is less than 10 miles away – I visit about 5 times a year. I want to see these places and hold them near. No one is forcing me, but this writer acts as if because she didn’t know this museum was there the museum is not doing enough to engage her. What a pompous little pisser she is.

    To the rest of you I say it is YOUR responsibility to learn about where you live, YOUR job to get to know your neighbors and your neighborhood, YOUR job to get interested. Stop blaming the rest of the world, get off your ass, and do something!

    Why didn’t she use a picture of the museum from her neighborhood? Or one from the National Center for Popular Music in the UK?

    • James Heaton says:

      Emmie: Thank your spirited and valuable comments. I love your attitude, and it sounds like you are a great advocate that any historic house would love to have take up arms on their behalf. I’ll let our “pompous little pisser” defend her thesis in her own words, but as for the photo selection, let me take this opportunity to explain.

      We struggled with this a bit. I had already used a photograph of Morris-Jumel Mansion in my post on the subject, and we did not want to seem too repetitive. Our next thought, like yours, was to use a photograph of the National Center for Popular Music, but we could not find any that were rights free or available from our regular stock photo houses. We settled on this photo of Jane Austen’s house because it is an historic house museum, and the photograph was, in my view, appealing.

      Thanks for keeping us on our toes.


    • Joseph Mango says:


      I can see you are passionate about your way of life and the experiences that have led to your knowledge and success. These experiences may have given you uplifting fulfillment, but you seem to be ignorant of this “generation.” Your response is not really about museums, but about the old ways versus new ways of seeing the world. You’re pinning it on our generation.

      This is a conversation I have had with many others regarding our constant attention to our devices, and our attention to what’s put by them right in front of our faces. You say its our “responsibility to find out about [our] own neighborhood,” maybe so, but is it not our responsibility to also pay attention to what’s going on in the world around us more generally, and to decipher its message and meaning so we are able to react intelligently? Strategic and intelligent marketing can bring us all closer together so we can share our experiences…instead of calling each other names.

      It’s not that I don’t agree with you, but can we explain why many others like Liz and myself have never heard of the Morris-Jumel Mansion until now, while we have heard of other far away structures, monuments and even details of the surface of the moon. I don’t think I need to detail all of my own adventures and explorations of New York and the world, it would be counterproductive, and yes I recognize that it is our responsibility to know our immediate surroundings, but there is a larger world out there also waiting to be explored and experienced, and my smart phone is what will most likely help me find it.

      To deny the rolling stone of progress will only result in being crushed. As Bob Dylan put it, “But you don’t understand. Just what you’ll say. When you get home. Because something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is.”


  2. Elizabeth Skolnick says:


    Thank you for your comment.

    You raise some valid points that I think merit a serious response. I’ll attempt this here (avoiding any name-calling, which can be a barrier to free and honest intellectual discourse). Yes, perhaps part of the responsibility to explore one’s neighborhood does rest with the potential museum visitor. However, it’s worth pointing out a few things:

    1) There are stark differences between a small town and a large city such as New York with its dizzying array of offers. Here, it is difficult for an historic house museum such as Morris-Jumel Mansion to compete with its larger and more centrally located brethren. My goal was to explore the ways in which Morris-Jumel can combat forces which serve to keep it largely unknown to many New York residents and visitors, including increasing visibility by directly engaging with the local community, and eliciting visits and interest from residents who live further downtown.

    2) In defense of myself, I lived most of my life far from the Morris-Jumel Mansion neighborhood, in the lower West Side. As anyone who has spent any time in New York will tell you—this is a world away from the Washington Heights neighborhood.

    3) My real and most important point is as follows: like it or not, this is what you (assuming you work in the museum field) and your institution are up against: “pompous little pisser” millennials, 30 and 40 somethings who very often will not go out and look for these more hidden institutions unless you (the institution) make them a tantalizing offer—unless you extend your feelers into the scope of their consciousness. This may not be fair, but, especially in a city such as New York—where people often feel they are crunched for time and are easily won over by the larger, closer, more impressive offers—this is what Morris-Jumel and others are facing. The first step toward fighting what is in many respects an uphill (but not impossible!) battle, is knowing what you’re contending with. Well, here it is.

    So, as far as I can tell there are two options: you can pull the blanket over your eyes and bemoan what seem to be the facts about a large portion of your audience, or you can buck up and educate yourself about this group, and consider them a prospective audience. With this knowledge you can then find creative ways to reach out to millennials, such as myself, and those like me, with what we will be receptive to. You can do this very effectively if you know how to appeal to us. The same goes for any attempt to appeal to the local community, as I’m suggesting Morris-Jumel might benefit from doing.



    • Jason Ring says:

      Someone in their 40’s would not be a millennial. This is the second of your articles I have read and the fact that you make it sound that if it is a problem for you it must be a problem of your whole generation. You seem to spend a lot of time pointing out the problems, but little time actually looking for solutions. Instead you ask museums to change to cater to your needs. Have you considered evolving yourself and instead bowing to the terms of the museum. You are in the real world now. Your teachers are not here to cater to your every need and your parents aren’t here to shelter you and fight your battles.

      • James Heaton says:

        Jason, thanks for your thoughts. The author of this post was in her late 20s when she wrote it. She was certainly a millennial and while it’s not possible for any individual to represent the views of an entire generation, I think she does provide some useful insight with regard to her expectations, and by extension those of many of her peers, and to some extent her generation. She grew up and now lives in a world where an individual’s needs are routinely met or exceeded by all manner of service providers. The price for not meeting those needs is that she will immediately look elsewhere. This is not so much a complaint as a baseline reality that is worth paying attention to if you want millennials, now the largest American demographic, to love and recommend you.

  3. Charles says:

    You have raised some extremely poignant discussion points aimed at raising awareness to an all too common problem with museums. Those museums who simply rely on “pompous little pissers” to get off their asses and visit the local museums cause “that is their job” will drown in their own arrogant pools of apathy.

    Museums have so much competition these days (including this blog) and creating relevance to the potential visitor is key to building a healthy visitor strategy. Until my free time becomes a paid job, I will continue to have free choice and I choose to be interested in things that have some relevance to me, my family and my (here we go again with the “m” words) friends.

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