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More museums turn to focus groups, but do they help or hinder?

Museums are using market research to engage audiences and avoid gaffes, but the process could rule out all but the famous and the safe

Focus groups are not just for makeup and snack food any more. Museums are increasingly using the popular market research tool to gather input from the public and refine exhibitions and programmes. Originally developed to gauge the effectiveness of propaganda during the Second World War, focus groups are “a new trend” among art institutions, says Louise Mirrer, the president of the New-York Historical Society.Before its exhibition Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation (30 October 2016-15 January 2017), the Minneapolis Institute of Art ran six 90-minute focus groups: two with Lutherans, two with other religious audiences and two with non-religious visitors. Curators, educators and communications staff watched on a live feed in another room.

“We wanted to understand where our different audiences are coming from,” says Kristin Prestegaard, the museum’s chief engagement officer. Changes were made to exhibition materials after the focus groups revealed that non-Lutherans know little about the Reformation while Lutherans are less familiar with Luther’s anti-Semitism late in life.

The museum plans to hire a full-time evaluator to run focus groups later this year. “We really want to be visitor and audience-focused. We’re all in on that,” Prestegaard says.

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has run focus groups since reinstalling its collection in 2007. When consulted about the exhibition Dance! American Art 1830-1960 (until 12 June), some participants felt that Native American ghost dances were too sacred to depict. In the end, the two works that showed the ritual remained in the exhibition, but wall labels gave a respectful explanation of the spiritual meaning of the dances. Now, the museum is taking public consultation even further by reserving four spots for community members on a brainstorming team dedicated to the reinstallation of its Asian collection.

A dangerous precedent? Some feel that the use of focus groups to develop exhibitions—a practice pioneered by science and history museums—encourages institutions to act more like for-profit businesses than mission-driven entities. “Museums have visitors, not customers, and serve communities, not markets,” the Sydney-based former museum director Des Griffin writes on his website. A 2012 article in the New Criterion review quotes Philippe de Montebello, the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: “When art museums rush to be commercial or seek to titillate their visitors, we see a lamentable failure of nerve.”

The obsession with mass appeal also runs the risk of eroding academic rigour. One museum director recently told Laura Lott, the president of the American Alliance of Museums, that his institution was toying with allowing the community to vote on future acquisitions. If museums go overboard, they may end up narrowing their focus to “only… van Goghs and Monets, and things the public is familiar with”, she says.

For better or worse, many say that museums can no longer afford to ignore the opinions of their constituents. Adam Rozan, the director of audience engagement at the Worcester Art Museum, says: “Gone are the days of the lone curator, working for years in isolation producing exhibitions for themselves—or, worse, their peer groups.”

Behind the two-way mirror: five common focus group questions 1. What does this object mean to you?

2. Does the object make you excited enough to come see the show?

3. When you picture yourself in an art museum, is there any dissonance in viewing both art and historical objects in context with one another?

4. Which of the show’s themes do you find most interesting?

5. Are you confused by any of the themes?