The audience is dead – let’s talk participants instead

The audience is central to much of what a museum does, and visitor surveys and audience segmentation have over the past decade improved our understanding of the people who walk through our doors.

In terms of the audience being the receivers of a performance or service, ‘audience’ does not seem like the best way for us to describe the modern museum consumer. These are people who live increasingly digital lives, where they are not spectators, but active participants, positively engaged through outreach programmes and projects.

While it is unlikely that the use of the word ‘audiences’ will change, I think it is useful for us to think of the people who choose to interact with museums either digitally or by making a visit as ‘participants’.

Whether you are planning a new exhibition, website or marketing plan, thinking about how you can engage with your museum’s ‘participants’ rather than ‘audiences’ will give you a different mindset.

Marketing for participants

In February 2011, a group of museums and galleries in Yorkshire, England launched a marketing campaign to promote art collections on display in thirty-five venues across their county.

The campaign chose not to shout about how great the art in these museums and galleries was, but instead asked the pubic to participate in the campaign by sharing stories about their favourite painting.

The campaign Yorkshire’s Favourite Painting offered a unique prize, the opportunity to win a replica of a painting that you love, and in six weeks, over 400 people took the opportunity to enter the competition.

The stories about why people loved these paintings were diverse, from a moving account of a mother who had lost her son in the conflict in Afghanistan and was reminded of him by a Lowry painting, to a six year old boy who ‘liked the lovely ladies’ in a painting of mermaids and a lady who wanted to win a replica of an artwork by her famous artist father.

While 400 people wrote stories, many more participated in other ways, sharing stories through social media, leaving comments and voting for stories.

The website attracted tens of thousands of hits, but the campaign resonated further, with online participants becoming real world visitors.

Websites for participants

While museums are creating opportunities for the public to participate online though their use of Facebook and Twitter, most museum websites haven’t incorporated this kind of interaction into their own websites.

Teylers Museum, the Netherlands’ first and oldest museum is one such museum. Their website offers the public all the pre-visit information they might need, but doesn’t seem to give the public the chance to participate in any meaningful way.

However, the Teylers Museum has another website, built using the social networking tool NING which breaks down the boundaries and brings the museum to life in a way their main website doesn’t.

The website invites anyone to participate by joining this mini social network of curators, associates and friends of the museum.

Herman Voogd of the Teylers Museum explains ‘We started to use NING to give all Teylerfans and our staff the opportunity to leave pictures and messages about the museum.

‘We like the idea of having both a traditional museum website and something which is more open. A blog, a photo-album where every member of staff has more freedom. On our NING website it doesn’t matter that the picture is not crystal clear or that the movie is amateurish.

‘The rule is to not spend a lot of time but share a lot of knowledge about the museum or the collections’.

Using NING as a platform gives the public the opportunity to participate not only by commenting on content added to the website by the museum, but also by starting their own conversations and sharing their own perspective on the museum.

Ultimately, I see all museum websites giving audiences the chance to participate in this way. This approach takes more time and effort than a traditional website, and many may worry about the resources that such an online community would require. But if a museum does not have time to participate in conversations with its audiences (even online) then I think it needs to reassess its priorities.

Exhibitions for participants

Another way to involve our audiences as participants is through co-creating exhibitions. I think this is an exciting opportunity which we are only just starting to see museums explore.

This kind of co-creation can take many forms; it could be a history exhibition shaped by the contributions from people who lived through the event, a crowdsourced art exhibition created with the public or asking visitors to write new labels for paintings.

One recent example comes from CCCB in Barcelona, where an exhibition of photography by 20th century Spanish photographer Josep Brangulí is being partnered by a very 21st century project.

Contemporary photographers were asked to respond to the themes of the exhibition (and Josep Brangulí’s work) through an open call which tapped in to Barcelona’s thriving Flickr community to attract over 2,000 submissions in a month.

One picture reflecting each of the exhibitions themes will be displayed alongside the work of Josep Brangulí, while all submissions will be shown in a projection.

This isn’t social media for the sake of a trend, but using technology to make an exhibition better through public participation, and in doing so, CCCB are also making the individuals who are taking the time to get involved think deeper about the themes of the exhibition and the changing world captured in both the Brangulí and the contemporary images.

This kind of participation acknowledges that the public has a valid voice within the museum, and that these individuals have something to contribute.

In Conclusion

What these forms of participation have in common is that they acknowledge that the public has a valid voice within the museum, and that these individuals have something to contribute, often making the exhibition better than it could be without the public’s participation.

It is perhaps naïve to think that the best expertise always exists within a museum.

Our audiences are not passive spectators. They increasingly expect museums to offer them participatory experiences and that should be reflected by the way in which the modern museum approaches them.

Don’t think of the people who walk through your doors or interact with you online as audiences, think about what you can do for your participants.


This article was written by Jim Richardson, founder of
Europe’s major conference on social media for museums, MuseumNext and managing director of Sumo, a creative agency with a reputation for developing innovative digital marketing.

Jim regularly speaks at conferences and contributes to publications on social media and digital marketing.

15 Responses to “The audience is dead – let’s talk participants instead”

  1. Kait says:

    Thanks for this great piece, Jim. Keep the excellent content coming — it is so very interesting and useful.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Super article, couldn’t agree more with “if a museum does not have time to participate in conversations with its audiences (even online) then I think it needs to reassess its priorities.” I also think that although a lot of Museums and galleries are only currently using tools like twitter for communication, it may help towards loosening the more rigid models and content production methods, creating conversations, which may encourage a simular way of thinking for exhibition spaces (on and offline).

    I guess Tyler Museum are playing it safe, by creating an additional third space ‘ning community site’ to see what happens, without losing the traditional museum website. It is a good case study to watch how these two spaces will develop side by side.

    Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven are in my opinion breaking ground and doing great things in this area, for many exhibitions and events.

    Thank you for the interesting read.

  3. Valérie says:

    Un grand merci pour cet article vraiment intéressant. Il donne des idées de développement d’outils de médiation culturelle à proposer aux institutions.


  4. Jennifer Miller says:

    This is fantastic and was exactly what I argued for in my resent thesis, to create a Community of Practice among museum staff and its “audience.” Museums should become communities of shared knowledge. Technology is only making it easier to include the audience in the dialog and by acknowledging their voice and contributions, it embraces how we learn- through social learning. Exactly, the audience is no longer a passive spectator (as Nina Simon puts it), we interact with our world to extend our own and social knowledge. Museums are often discussing and questioning their own relevance, in order to maintain their relevance in society, they need to fully provide the needs and growing expectations, which is increasingly becoming more personalized and social. I love these case studies you used. I’ll have to share them around!

  5. This is a very interesting discussion, but allthough I am very much in favour of participation in museums (and everywhere else in the heritage sector!), I´m not sure, that “participants” etc. are the best terms for describing people who come to the museum.

    “Audience” gave the image of a group listening and ”recieving” content, that the institution has made. “Participant” gives the image of a group doing something, “activated” by the museum. The institution organizes something for participants to take part in. It´s not, that participation isn´t great… but I think we have to be careful not to see people as a targets, that the museum has to influence. And not all would like to participate. Some feel fine as ”audience”…. and others may have other ideas and wishes for their relation to the institution.

    Personally I am very fond of the word ”user”, which is getting more and more frequent in Denmark. A user can be part of an audience or be a participant … or something else. The user can spend a whole day or 10 minutes in the museum, participate in programmes and activities, do something online or go through recoreds in the reading room if the institution has one. So usage is broader, because it is whatever the user wants. My point is also, that it is the user who defines her/his usage, thus making the institution a ressource in her/his own endeavours… whatever they may be :-)

  6. Leo Wieser says:

    Perhaps we could build a museum to the audience so future interactive participants can learn about past audiences.

    Really, it is all semantics. If you look at the world of theatre, the audience has always been an active part of being engaged in the journey theatre offers. Same with movies. It is when the story teller blares and bamboozles with sensory stimulation to attract the lowest common denominator that one looses interest; something all to common today. The telling of an interesting story in a compelling and human way still trumps the flash and dazzle.

    What we are looking at here is what has needed to happen for a long while. Creating an interactive bond between the viewer and the interpreted object. Really we are just coming into the realization that infotainment and its technological tools create a better interpretive impression.

    Just my two cents.

  7. Leo Wieser says:

    It is interesting the idea you present of user and participant. Just thinking it through here, we built an interactive kids museum and I actually thought it was more an attraction for the criminally insane. Nothing survived. Things which were indistructable were reduced to twisted metal in months. The displays had to be rebuilt to the lowest common denominator. I faulted lack of proper supervision and interpretation and the fact that the parents treated it more like a play area / baby sitter. But Kids museums must exist too. How does this situation train an audience? How do our expectations of being a participant change as we grow into a mature audience.

    Sorry if I may have taken this a bit off track, but really I wonder of the connection and how it shapes our “users” of today and the future.

    I myself participate in history as a user but in a hands on approach. I am fulfilling my interests by firing the steam traction engine in a museum to the north of me. I am one of a few left learning this. I am also learning to fire the steam locomotive in our local historical park. These are NOT part of the museum experience to the general public, but somehow I have gotten involved with it none the less. I think there is more to museums and their collections than the normal viewing experience.

    Sorry for the rambling. Must get back to work.

  8. Good article and vision. The Better Buildings Partnership has incentives (2011-2014) to help Toronto-based Museum Groups with their needs …….and how to align with clients and stakeholders. Glad to provide details to interested groups.

  9. Hi
    Interesting article.

    It seems to me that the goal of increased relevancy for the public is one that has pretty deep roots in the museum field, even if the field has not widely risen to the challenge over recent decades. What does seem new(er) is the use of communication technology to enable the participation in a range of contexts and to enable visitor-based feedback into the public realm. This has great advantages for any program that aims to foster participant-based creativity. For several decades, I have been a big believer (and practitioner) in the need for demonstrable public relevancy and engagement in museums, so, for me, this work is exciting.

    I’d like to ask two questions here:
    1) when museum strategies such as those featured in the article are put in place, what are the ‘indicators of success’ that museum staff are using to assess the strategies? (for example: percentage of participants who provide some feedback? percentage of visitors who spend time with both museum and public contributions? percentage who challenge the underlying concept of the program? percentage who return multiple times? etc.)
    2) are there examples of initiatives that are addressing the critical cultural issues of our time (eg. social equity, environmental degradation, structural dysfunction of the economy, etc) in ways that help individuals and groups to contribute to and shape dialogue on core matters of human UNsustainability?

    I fully understand that cultural experience takes many forms that can help foster increasing consciousness of individuals, stimulate dialogue across groups or even to bring about meaningful societal change. But so much of what museums seem to be doing these days is focused on collections and other preoccupations of the institution, rather than the cultural life of people living, day to day, in communities with complex, systems problems (which increasingly link to the global community). So, I am looking for exemplary museum initiatives that are addressing human sustainability issues in effective ways.


  10. [...] Click here to read the Museum Next article referenced about audience participation. [...]

  11. [...] there’s a potential downside. Jim Richardson of Sumo and MuseumNext, gives a great overview of the promise of co-creation. His example of CCCB’s Brangulí exhibition in Barcelona hits all the major features of a modern [...]

  12. Congratulations for the post!!! :-)

    As process designers specializing in co-creation we cannot but be very much pleased to see your appreciation of this kind of projects.

    Not only does co-creation influence (on the positive side) the final quality of the exhibition but it also improves the perception of the institution by the public. The public becomes more “an owner” of the exhibition and is more identified with the institution.

    At least, this is our experience in designing processes of co-creation with institutions (in the cultural sector and others). Organizations, however, usually approach participation/co-creationg from a very cautious perspective or taking a view of participation that is indistinguishable from simple “interaction” (see for a discussion: Typically they start with by starting contributory processes (like the one you mention of the CCCB) which are not really co-design projects and which are located at the lowest levels of participation and involvement: just sending content. This is also typical of the institutions that arrive to this processes through the social media mindset. The predecessor of the CCCB exhibition (“La ciutat dels horrors”) for example, had its origin more in the communications departament of the institution than in the exhibtion departament. But it was a good start nevertheless! :-)

    Actually most co-creative projects are just contributory processes: that is, projects where the public is required to contribute ideas or content and little more. However, if the appropriate resources and staff are in place in order to oversee and facilitate the process, there is the possibility that the social interaction and dialogue that you mention may eventually happen. If not, it is just a fleeting connection between the public and the institution during the time the call for contributions is open. Real co-creation goes way beyond simple contributory crowdsourcing processes.

    Of course, to do so, institutions have to be knowledgeable in some techniques that go beyond the use of social media as simple platforms for contributory processes.

    In our experience the field of design is an excellent source of techniques and methods for…. designing participatory process where the users are co-designers. By becoming active builders (not just contributors of content or partners in a conversation, the mantra of the social media literature) they become more knowledgeable of the topics of an exhibition, more aware of the practices of processes around that topic and even more aware of the practices and goals of museums and other cultural institutions.
    There is also the opportunity to change the role of the museum within its wider community.

    In order to “design processes for co-design” one has to resort to new developments in the discipline of design, not just the more commercially oriented “Design Thinking” movement but other trends in design that are connected with social innovation such as the work of Ezio Mazini, who views users and designers as real partners and sees the whole process as an opportunity for evolving both the institution and the social group around it. But if the institution doesn’t prepare and design the whole process many “participatory” processes become just another crowdsourcing, one-shot event with little consequence on the relationship users/participants and the institution.

    In the design community the creation of this type of processes stretches the actual practices beyond the actual “Design Thinking” fad and connects with the work of designers who are involved in the design of social change process (either under the umbrella of Social Design, such as Ezio Manzini’s work or “MetaDesign” such as Gerhardt Fischer’s work. See

    Participation has many levels, an institution have to be aware of what committing to one level or the other entails in terms of changing the processes within the institution that are related to communication and engagement with the public. We can see right now a lot of projects that call themselves participatory but that do not involve the public in any significant participation. This is a problem: it creates false expectations on both sides and a lot of frustration. The backlash can be rather negative.

    Active participation has many dimensions, mostly related to active design and construction with the users. See for example the project “From contemplation to participation and beyond” where the users become the designers of a whole exhibition (including participation processes for other users) about Internet Technology. It involved the collaboration of two institutions (Tech Museum in California and Citilab in Spain) and managing users that where at the same time local and global. As initial designers we were the facilitators of the process, co-designers of the exhibition and helpers in articulating a learning community:

    See the academic publication that describes the whole process, with some discussing on precedents of design in museums here:

    This is not usually in the current toolset of museum professionals. We will share this co-design methods at the annual meeting “Creativity & Collaboration 2011: An Exhibitions Retreat” that the AAM organizes in cooperation with the American Association for

    Previously, the same month, but in Barcelona (at CCCB, by the way) we also will have a hands-on workshop on these subjects:

    And a (co-created of course) book is on the making.

    It is a really promising new way of doing things! A pleasure to see that a community of practitioners and museum professionals is starting to grow globally around it! :-)

    Hope to see you in the next NextMuseum in Barcelona!

    Irene Lapuente, and Ramon Sangüesa founders of Co-Creating Cultures

  13. [...] Click here to read the wePLAYdifferent article by Brian Polak referenced about “live tweeting&… [...]

  14. [...] I’ve been thinking a lot about a post I saw over on Museum Next titled “The audience is dead – let’s talk participants instead.” Jim, the author, explains: While it is unlikely that the use of the word ‘audiences’ [...]

  15. [...] un espacio cultural abierto, poroso, en el que no se hable de audiencia o espectadores sino de participantes activos, comprometidos de manera positiva a través de programas y proyectos. Un espacio intergeneracional [...]