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Define Museum: A Q&A with the Museum Glossary Project Team

Category: Alliance Blog
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One of my all-time favorite sayings is, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together,” which was the case with the Museum Marketing, Communications, & Audience Engagement Glossary project. In part one of this Q&A series, I spoke with James Heaton, the CEO and visionary of the Tronvig Group, who explained how this project aims to break down silos between audience-focused and subject-focused disciplines in the field.

Thanks are very much owed to James and the Tronvig team, who both provided the organizational structure to the project and devoted the project management and other support needed to carry it, translate it into Spanish, and host the website for it. Thanks are also owed to the museum professionals who helped discuss and debate the nuanced definitions of each of the words that make up the glossary. In this Q&A, I speak with several of these project team members, who each come from the marketing, communications, and audience engagement space.

Joining me in the conversation are Joyce Kwon, the glossary project manager and General Manager at the Tronvig Group; Elke Dehner, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Rubin Museum; Allison Peck, Director of External Affairs and Partnerships, Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building; Jo Tiongson-Perez, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at the Penn Museum; and Kristin Prestegaard, Chief Audience Officer, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. (These titles reflect the team’s positions at the time of writing of the glossary, which may have since changed in some cases.)

The following are excerpts from our conversations.

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Adam Rozan: What’s the Museum Glossary?

Elke Dehner: It’s a glossary for museum marketing, communications, and engagement professionals.

Joyce Kwon: The museum marketing, communications, and audience engagement glossary is an evolving, group-sourced collection of definitions of terms often used in our field. It is a collaborative effort fueled by debate between colleagues with respect and adoration for each other.

AR: As marketing, communications, and audience engagement professionals, why write a glossary of museum terms and words?

Allison Peck: In our jobs, we think constantly about who we’re talking to and what we want to say, and often we don’t focus enough on some of the most influential people we want to reach: our colleagues! A shared understanding across the museum helps us work even more closely together to bring the power of art and culture to the broadest possible audiences.

Jo Tiongson-Perez: Reaching, engaging, and communicating with the public have been traditionally perceived as responsibilities exclusive to marketing and communications roles.

But if we accept that museums exist to serve audiences, then centering audiences across all types of museum work supports that rationale. This mindset can have a radical impact on an organization’s operating infrastructure as well as culture.

In terms of infrastructure, institutions that adopt an audience-centric approach make engaging with and creating for audiences the shared responsibility of every person involved in museum work. From developing inclusive experiences across exhibitions and programming to designing accessible wayfinding across museum spaces and greeting someone at the front desk, imagine how museums can shape every touch point that tells a visitor: you matter, you belong.

AR: How can a shared definition support audience engagement, marketing, and communications teams?

Kristin Prestegaard: The shared definitions can support audience teams to succeed in their work. It can help all museum professionals be successful in their work. Like most things, a shared understanding (agreed upon or not) is the best place to start for successful outcomes.

Allison Peck: As the field has advanced over the past few decades, it’s become increasingly professionalized and nuanced. Marketing, communications, publicity, audience engagement, community outreach, and thought leadership—all these areas have professional language. Building our collective knowledge lets us create strategies that are smarter and more effective, with clear impact.

AR: Why are each of the terms written with audiences in mind? 

Allison Peck: Museums are increasingly transforming from bastions of traditional preservation to being open, dynamic, and community-centered. It’s vital for our survival—and more vitally, for the good of the people we serve. All of our work should be centered around audiences.

Kristin Prestegaard: We, all museum professionals and volunteers, are here, doing this work to serve the people who visit and engage with us—our audience. That can and will look different for each organization. But it is necessary to keep the audience in the forefront of our minds—for our mission and success.

AR: Why does the museum field need a museum-based glossary of terms?

Jo Tiongson-Perez: This glossary was created as a resource for the community of museum professionals.

Because we believe museums exist to serve audiences, we incorporate an audience-centric and museum-specific lens in each definition. We hope this will contribute to the museum field’s continued development.

Elke Dehner: “Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.” – Theodore Dreiser. Words get thrown around, and people often mean or associate different things without being aware of them, and that can cause friction and lack of effectiveness in the immediate and long term.

AR: What’s your favorite word that we’ve defined?

Elke Dehner: Community. Because it’s a term often discussed in museums, yet there’s an underlying complexity worth shining a light on, e.g., communities can’t be defined from the outside; there’s no such thing as an “Asian community in NYC,” etc.

Joyce Kwon: Purpose statement! I’m constantly interrogating why things exist and what purpose they serve. Once that’s clear, we can identify the mission, vision, and values—which we’ve included in the purpose statement definition. I think purpose is one of the most fundamental words. While there are and will be words that come and go with the times (e.g., “influencers”), the purpose statement is something you need from day one and throughout the lifespan of a museum, whether in 2023, 1823, or 2323.

Jo Tiongson-Perez: Analytics. Transitioning from a corporation to an art museum ten years ago, I observed a gap in how museums, especially in marketing and communications work, would tell the story of their incredible social impact: It needed more data. And I don’t mean visitation numbers or earned and contributed revenue figures. I refer to measuring the impact of a department’s work that contributes to those mission and monetary goals. For example, ROI in marketing spend. E-commerce data in Google Analytics. Audience engagement through a CRM system. Visitor demographics to track a museum’s progress in being more reflective of the city population it serves.

AR: Most misunderstood word or phrase in museums?

Jo Tiongson-Perez: Audience. Internally, this tends to be described creatively or loosely instead of strategically tied to data such as behavior or demographics. Worse, entire museum experiences or initiatives will be developed with no clear audience goal.

Elke Dehner: Audience. It’s what’s at the core of our work as nonprofits because resources are finite, and we need to be clear about who to prioritize, and because departments often think about audiences in different ways and need language as a bridge to develop impactful initiatives.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you. Clear and simple definitions are essential so that we all speak the same museum language.

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