Transforming Visitor Experience Across Museums and Heritage Sites: Museum Organisation and Evaluation

Impact case study
  • Unit(s) of assessment: D30 - History
  • School: School of Arts and Humanities

Impact

This research looks at how museums, and history museums in particular, can best respond to the changing needs of 21st-century audiences. Graham Black argues that the speed of change in the external world – a perfect storm involving rapid demographic change, generational shift and the influence of new media – must be matched by an equally speedy response in the definition, mission and public practice of museums, if they are to remain relevant. Through publications, talks and design practices his work has helped to shape the debate on where the future of museums lies.

Black's research has helped to influence the museum and heritage display agenda since the mid-1990s, placing audiences rather than collections at the centre of the engagement process, and taking an approach based on conversation rather than the museum lecturing its visitors. He combines overview / analysis / evaluation / debate around practice with action research through the development of policy documents, interpretive plans and exhibitions. Although museological and learning theories have been influential on his work, Black believes that he has learned most from bringing museum teams together to develop exhibition content, from the physical act of observing museum users as they respond to display content and from an overview of relevant case studies carried out by others.

Examples of Black's practice include collaborations with the National Trust, with Birmingham, Cardiff, Leicester and Nottingham city councils, and with the Stoke Potteries Museum on the re-display of the Staffordshire Hoard.

Most of Black's work has involved substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grants (for his work with the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham, Tyntesfield in North Somerset, Weston Park Museum in Sheffield and Newarke Houses Museum, Leicester) as part of wider grant aid from the EU and UK regional development agencies, with a total spend to date in excess of £80 million. His contributions are not created in isolation, but through collaboration with museum or heritage organisations, local communities and design companies.

Black’s impact on display and content practice is reflected in the continuing demand for his services from high-profile practitioner groups to offer keynote speeches in the UK and Europe. Between 2011 and 2013, these have included speeches to: the European Foundation, Berlin, the European Campus of Local and Regional Authorities for Culture, the UK Association for Heritage Interpretation, the UK Association of Independent Museums, the UK Visitor Studies Group, the Public History of Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine project at the Science Museum, London and the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.

Research background

A key element of Black's research focuses on the contemporary museum as a centre for informal learning, and specifically on how museum exhibitions and associated programming perform this function.

Black sees the creation of an exhibition as only the beginning – work really starts when the public gain admission. A major focus of his book, Transforming museums In the 21st century, is that museums must concentrate on establishing long-term relationships with their audiences. Since 2008, he has concentrated on developing techniques to achieve this, particularly through arranging on-going events and activities programmes and making user-generated contributions integral to content.

Black views the museum visit as a three-dimensional, whole body experience: people move through galleries, engaging physically, socially, intellectually and often emotionally with content and with each other. Informal learning in this situation is place-specific, active, self-directed and dependent on motivation, but all in a social-recreational context. Visitors use museums as they want, not as the museum dictates. Yet, while the primary responsibility for learning rests with the visitor, museum environment and display layouts can have both positive and negative impacts. A dynamic and engaging environment will give people the power and opportunity to customise their visits. Black sees his role as working with the museum to achieve this ambition. As such, some of his work is creative. Much is about planning – creating a model for engagement.

The background research underpinning this model combines the study of museum audiences, their expectations and motivations, alongside applied learning theory and research, specifically on visitor behaviour in the museum environment. Black then situates these findings in the contemporary context of demographic change, generational shift and the impact of new media, to establish a working model for museum displays.

The other focus of Black's work is on promoting community engagement through communities researching their own past contributions. Echoing the words of Wendell Berry (A continuous harmony, 1972), Black speaks of his fear of a 21st-century society “adrift in the present”, and of the importance of the democratisation of history as a counter to this. He wants those communities previously silenced, spoken for or marginalised, to research and reclaim ownership of their pasts, and to see these pasts represented in museum displays. He recognises that communities will have different understandings and uses of the past than professional historians and acknowledges that these approaches make for a “messy history” when compared to the authoritative voice offered by the professional historian. However, he argues strongly for the quality of the history being represented, and against dominant narrative.

All our cities and communities have potentially toxic pockets of disputed history, but it is core to Black's advocacy that museums must be trusted to present disputed history that counters myth and invention, nostalgia, the false, the romanticised, the unchallenging, the selective, the biased.

Evidence

  • Founding partner, Focus Consultants, Nottingham. This company has project-managed a number of the museum developments on which Graham Black has worked. It can testify to Black's ability to galvanise museum curators to establish clear future directions for their institutions through the creation of master plans.
  • Director of Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery. Graham Black was commissioned to run visioning workshops for the museum, in preparation for the development of proposals to re-develop and re-display its content. The result was the museum's 2020 vision document.
  • Head of Learning and Exhibition Development at the National Museum of Denmark, responsible for overseeing the redisplay of the museum. Graham Black was commissioned to run workshops with the curatorial team to support the development of display approaches for all the galleries in the museum.
  • Head of Interpretation at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke. She has responsibility for the display of the Staffordshire Hoard, a remarkable Anglo-Saxon find of international significance. She commissioned Black to run workshops for the curatorial team that resulted in a very different approach to the displays.
  • Regional Museum Development Manager for East Midlands Museums which accepted an innovative proposal from Black and now funds his MA students to work with small local museums to carry out audience research. A number of museums now want to participate in this scheme.

Awards

  • Galleries of Justice: Joint winner of the Museums Heritage Award for Educational Initiatives, 2013; £100,000 Museum Prize 2004; Gulbenkian Prize 1998; English Tourist Board East Midlands Attraction of the Year 1998. Black has a long-term role as an advisor to the museum.
  • Royal Albert Memorial Museum: £100,000 Art Fund Prize (the re-named Museum Prize) 2012. Graham Black was commissioned to run workshops with the history and archaeology curatorial team to support the development of display approaches for the history galleries in the museum.
  • Framework Knitters' Museum, Ruddington: winner of an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Award (£4,500), where Black has acted as adviser on the long-term master plan, and has been active in fundraising for the museum extension. (2012 on-going.)
  • Weston Park Museum, Sheffield: The Guardian Family-friendly Museum of the Year, 2008; Shortlisted for the Art Fund Prize, 2008. Acting as a consultant, Black ran workshops underpinning the interpretation for the total re-display of what were the old Sheffield City Gallery and Mappin Art Gallery. Total spend circa £19m.

Practitioner engagement

  • The engaging museum: cited by practitioners, non-academics and academics as a major supporting tool when planning new museum exhibitions.

Reviews of The engaging museum: Developing museums for visitor involvement

  • Collection Management 30, 4 (2007), 106-8.
  • Review by Dr Georgios Alexopoulos for the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past.

Publications

  • Black, G., 2011. Transforming museums in the 21st century. London: Routledge.
  • Invited paper: 'What makes great history in a city history museum?', International Committee for the Collections and Archives of Cities, International Council of Museums, annual conference, Vancouver, 24-26 October 2012.
  • Black, G., 2005. The engaging museum: Developing museums for visitor involvement. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2nd ed. (Translated into Greek and Chinese.) For positive academic reviews see review, Collection Management 30,4 (2007), 106-8; and The University of York.
  • Black, G., 2013. Developing audiences for the twenty-first-century museum, in C. McCarthy (ed.), The international handbook of museum studies. Volume IV: Practice. Oxford: Wiley. 1-28.
  • Black, G., 2010. Embedding civil engagement in museums. Museum Management and Curatorship, 25 (2), 129-146. Republished as Museums and civil engagement, in Anderson, G. (ed) Reinventing the museum. 2011. 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press. 271-290.
  • Key Note Address: 'Target groups for art and cultural education in the digital era', The Influence of Digital Media on Innovative Art and Cultural Education Concepts Conference, European Foundation Genshagen, Berlin, 23-25 November 2011.

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