Engaging Visitors in the Age of Social Distancing

By Hilary Bergen, Historian & Certified Interpretive Planner

In the midst of a public health crisis, museums and cultural institutions are more important than ever. Museums are much more than four walls and a roof. They are trusted sources of information, anchors of their local communities, and educational partners to countless local schools and universities. But with storefronts and public buildings closed across the country, many organizations are grappling with the same questions. What do I do next? What do we do as museum professionals in this strange new world? If you are still figuring out a way to move forward, consider these steps.

First, think about your site’s assets right now. You may not have physical visitors or access to a public space, but you might have staff with free time, digitized collections, or photos of the inside of your institution. Be sure to think outside of the box. Next, what resources can your audience access? They might have computers, cell phones, but also art materials, household supplies, or chalk and an empty sidewalk to draw on.

We’re dreaming of vibrant, crowded museums—but in the meantime, finding ways to connect with and serve communities is imperative. Source: Wikimedia

Compare these assets to what your audience needs right now. They may need help homeschooling children. Perhaps they’re looking for stress relief or something that can spark curiosity or joy. Or, maybe they’re craving an opportunity for social interaction. Especially in these uncertain times, don’t forget your audience’s emotional needs. Empathy is the root of effective and impactful interpretation. In this era of social distancing, fear, and anxiety, museums have the unique opportunity to engage with their audiences to not only educate but inspire. Empathetic interpretive content works best when it is relatable and personal. It puts the reader into the shoes of others and can inspire readers to care about your organization and your message.

But how can you combine your available resources to fit the needs of socially distanced visitors? Think about how you can serve your audience and the wider community. What are the different strategies, tools, and digital platforms museums and cultural institutions can use to engage with audiences right now?

  • Go digital. If you haven’t already, now is the time to enhance your online presence. Adapting your existing analog content to fit virtual platforms can be more cost and time-efficient than starting from scratch. So what works best online? In our experience, digital content should be shorter and snappier than traditional exhibit text or content in physical publications. With so many museums and historic sites now moving online, remember not to inundate your visitors with hundreds of articles. Think carefully about your audience and be purposeful in selecting the most relevant content for them and our current climate.
  • Start Trending. Build up your social media presence. Engaging, relevant social media can be used to reach at-home audiences, especially millennials, Generation Z, and other digitally savvy audiences. Interactive online experiences enable visitors to discover and form personal connections to an institution’s stories and collections. Recently, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City made waves online when a security guard took charge of social media posts to hilarious results.
  • Our friends at Whitesbog Village are getting creative and offering virtual nature hikes on Facebook Live. Source: Pinelands Institute at Whitesbog Village

    Educate. With so many students migrating to distance learning, educational materials are in demand. Lesson plans, short videos from interpreters and staff, and fun activity kits can be designed to fit your content and address local state education standards. Focusing on educational programming during the crisis gives museums the opportunity to both serve the needs of their audience and increase access to their message and collections.

  • Be creative. The museum field is overflowing with creative energy. Now is the time to harness it! Look to your strengths and don’t be afraid to show off your unique gifts. If your institution deals with serious issues, use this time to inspire others. If your museum offers entertaining interactive experiences, think about ways you can translate this to a fun digital experience. The Cooper Gallery in the United Kingdom is making online jigsaw puzzles with digital artworks in their collection. The North Carolina Museum of Art found a way to spice up boring Zoom meetings by making digital backgrounds from their art pieces. The possibilities are limitless.

If you are new to creating digital content or looking for new ideas, there are several tools that can help you develop and launch online content.

Virtual tours can transport home-bound users to your site. Consider it an investment—it’s a resource that will remain relevant long after the pandemic ends. Source: U.S. Air Force

Omeka is an open-source platform for displaying digital collections on the web. With a few clicks, you can create beautiful and interactive media-rich exhibits with digital images, videos, and engaging text. Omeka is low-cost, versatile, and can be scaled to your institution’s specific needs, goals, and resources. Another interesting resource is Clio, a free resource from Marshall University that helps historic sites and museums create and distribute digital walking tours of their facilities. To date, museums, historical societies, and other cultural organizations have created nearly a thousand different virtual tours.

It’s okay to be unsure of what to do next. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. But you might also use this time as an opportunity to experiment with new ideas, grow your reputation and brand, and engage with visitors in different ways. Remember to listen to your audience’s needs, be flexible in your long term planning, and respond to our changing world.

Interested in getting started on a digital exhibit, tour, on enhanced social media content? HAI can help! Contact us to discuss your project.

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Addison Williams

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