How much do visitors engage with co-produced content?

June 3, 2016

Whichever arts organisation you work for, I wonder how much overlap there is between work created with community partners, and your main offer. Does exhibition content that features displays developed with community participants engage your visitors in a different way? Do theatre performances involving your youth companies, attract a different crowd? Is this something you have ever explored?

The way co-production impacts on audiences has always fascinated me, because whilst this work is a powerful way to engage new audiences and offer participants amazing learning opportunities, it’s important to understand more about the impact on the wider audience.

The Audience Agency curated the ‘Engaging New Audiences’ strand at this year’s Museums and Heritage Show in London. I presented as part of the day and spoke about the evaluation we were commissioned to do around the participative content in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery.

This huge gallery features many displays developed with community partners and the Science Museum were keen to understand if and how this content enhanced the visitor experience, especially as it was the first time they’d taken this approach in a major permanent gallery.

The commissioner, Kayte McSweeney (now at British Museum) and I wrote about this evaluation in the Museum Etc Museum Participation: New Directions for Audience Collaboration. We were keen to reflect on wider examples of research and evaluation that explore this topic.

We found visitors really did value co-produced content – especially for the greater emotional depth, personal relevance, accessibility of presenting content in the context of human experience and authenticity they thought it brought. However, the majority didn’t recognise this content as being any different from purely museum-authored display, unless it stands out. Whether it should or not, is where there’s lots of differing opinions. Making this work more explicit is not a stand-in for ghettoizing community generating work.

Listening to visitors’ feedback, the message was clear - visitors do engage more deeply with co-produced content if they know a little about the participants and the process.

Think about how you can create a visual marker, such as a consistent design or interpretative link to help them navigate these different displays – or in a different context how do you make this stand out in your communications? The challenge in doing this work, in any part of the arts, is to come up with sophisticated and concise ways of communicating the story of participation to audiences. I’d love to hear about any examples you know of.