Ask anyone in the Public History program here at IUPUI what the single most important word in our discipline is and I bet that the majority of the responses will be “audience”. The nature of the term “public history” makes this central to our discipline. Public history is set apart from history by the distinction of who the history is aimed at. As a result, much of our work as public historians-in-training focuses on understanding who our audience is and how we can best convey our interpretation of the past to them. Recently I came across the Whitney Museum of American Art which challenged how I have been thinking of audience. This museum’s Vlog project follows the trends of the business world and forces public historians to reconceive our audience and how we can best connect with them.
My marketing minor in undergrad causes me to see Public History’s “audience” as the parallel to the business world’s “target market”. Businesses design every aspect of their product – design, packaging, price, and advertising campaign- with a very specific market in mind. Traditionally, businesses have focused on the widest possible market to capture the largest market share and gain the most business. But recently, marketers have come to acknowledge that if you try to appeal to the biggest audience, you end up leaving out a lot of sub-markets. In the last decade or so, marketing has experienced a shift in how they envision their target market, or audience. Now, companies divide society into much smaller segments and market to several of them or they pick one non-mainstream group to focus on. The Neilsen Group has a tool for business that will describe a zip-code using 66 unique segments. Digital tools are making it easier to connect with every potential audience/market, not just the largest ones.
What the Whitney Museum’s Vlog Project showed me was that museums are starting to follow this trend in the business world. As many of you may know, a vlog is a video blog. Instead of writing your thoughts about a specific topic online (like I am doing), you make a video about it. But the Vlog Project is unique because the videos don’t have any sound; they are specifically targeted toward Deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Deaf museum educators sign explanations and talks on a variety of topics in contemporary art.[i] These vlogs don’t make me reconsider my concept of audience in public history just because they are reaching out to the hearing disabled community. Museums have long provided written explanations and tours for their exhibits. What makes these vlogs standout to me is the way that they specifically focus on giving this group a great experience, not just an experience. A recent blog entry on the use of vlogs in museums from The Center for the Future of Museums notes that, “Museums are highly visual experiences—and visitors already revel in documenting and sharing pictures via sites such as Flickr and Instagram”.[ii] If we want someone to experience our museum, which is a visual exploration, why would we provide a written explanation? Museum visitors can read a book any day, but they came to the museum for a specifically visual experience that provides them with something that a written explanation cannot.
The Vlog Project really shows this museum’s desire to provide the best experience for this specific audience by involving them at every stage of the process. In their review of the vlogs, Museums and the Web notes that, “While there are a number of museums that have used video to capture gallery commentary in ASL, the Vlogs are unique in that they involve Deaf individuals in every stage of production, from scripting original commentary to directing and editing each video.”[iii] After “audience”, “shared authority” is one of the biggest buzzwords in public history. But this is a kind of shared authority that we don’t often consider. We get caught up in working with those most directly impacted by an exhibit (usually those being represented) and we forget that there are other people who should share in this experience. In its design, The Vlog Project acknowledges that the experience of a museum is about connection and in many ways human interaction and this can best be conveyed through a video.
I think it is time for Public Historians to rethink our notion of audience. Who is experiencing our interpretations that we are not acknowledging? Digital access to museums makes this an especially important question. Viewing an exhibit is an experience that provides a multi-sensory learning environment in a way that reading a book does not. How can we make this experience the fullest and most captivating for every aspect of our audience? The digital humanities focus on collaboration and connection can help us to reach out to unique sub-groups in ways that we never could have before. We need to think beyond the status quo and go above and beyond to provide a quality experience for all.
I welcome any thought on this. It might be that this project only questions how I have been thinking about audience and public history. Are you challenged by the Vlog Project?
[ii]Center for the Future of Museums, “Micro Vlogging: Keeking Up with Social Media Trends,” http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2013/01/micro-vlogging-keeking-up-with-social.html (accessed January 31, 2013).
[iii] Musuems and the Web 2012 “The Vlog Project,” http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012/best/audio_visual_podcast/the_vlog_project (accessed January 31, 2013).