Hospitality in Museums – An effective way to grow connection with audiences

We all know that passé are the days when museums were just considered the storehouses of collections. Since the last decade or so there is enough evidence to indicate that the role of museums in the culture world in particular and in society in general is expanding. The growing importance of functions such as outreach, visitor- services, communication and marketing etc. all point to a rapid increase in external orientation and focus. This is indeed a welcome step

Since museums cannot and do not sell their objects, it is important to note at this point that a museum is in effect selling an experience of that object and a specific narrative built around it. This effectively means that this experience and narrative is something that can be crafted by choice keeping in mind the audience in question. Of course the same must be influenced by the specific propriety of context and rigour of factual accuracy in accordance with the core mandate of museums. 

Hospitality is broadly defined as ‘the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.’

So what exactly does a hospitality focus entail?

CUSTOMER REFRAMING

A shift from the idea of visitor to the idea of guest. Museum visitors today are no longer just ‘visitors. 21st century museum goers are the ‘guests’. And just like we plan and try to keep the considerations of our guests when we invite them home the same needs to be reflected in the museum visiting experience.

The people visiting the museums need to experience the visit as something they will cherish for a long time. Chances are that if the guest remembers something unique, intriguing, positive he or she would most likely share that experience with others and in effect become a friend and unofficial ambassador of the museum.

The National Museum in Delhi recently hosted a first of a kind event alongside their special exhibition Historical Gastronomica – The Indus Dining Experience

Historical Gastronomica at the National Miuseum

The exhibition demonstrated the evolution of food habits, food processing techniques and related architecture of the Harappans. Recreation of food of the Indus-Saraswati Civilization by National Award-winning Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Saby) was one of the main attractions of this exhibition.

Chef Saby explaining the planning and effort behind putting together the speical menu

Guests could sample dishes cooked by Chef Saby and his team using ingredients and methods that would most likely have been found in ancient times. The Chef was interacting with his guests, answering questions etc, and taking the hospitality quotient of the museum visit experience several notches higher.

CULTURE SHIFT

Keeping audience needs & feedback at the heart of all decision making The people visiting the museums need to experience the visit as something they will cherish for a long time. Chances are that if the guest remembers something unique, intriguing, positive he or she will most likely share that experience with others and in effect become a friend and unofficial ambassador of the museum. But crafting and providing an unique and memorable experience is not easy.

It requires an intimate understanding of the profile of the target audience of the specific museums. It mandates deep knowledge of audience expectations and needs from the museum visit. It also requires sensitization to the competitive context.

It is important to bear in mind that most museums are not competing with other museums for footfalls. They are competing with malls, cinemas, parks, Netflix, long commute, extended work hours etc. for time and attention of the person.    

In India we have seen many instances of museums extending their opening hours into evening hours to reflect a growing mind set of visitor centricity.

Last year the oldest museum in India – extended it’s working hours (TOI March 1, 2019)

CAPACITY BUILDING

Sensitising and investing in staff training & capacity building. In most instances a visitor to the museum is experiencing the museum not just through objects but also through the people interaction during the visit. The museum’s staff plays a crucial role in this process as it is their behaviour and service orientation that can sometimes make or break a visit experience.

The members of staff have to take charge of making the visitors feel more special and welcoming if hospitality orientation must become a reality within the museum. But this is easier said than done.

Museums and cultural organisations are required to invest in initiatives for the proper grooming and training of staff.  We know that a motivated and professionally equipped staff can really help increase the hospitality quotient of a place or service. In turn thus ensures an emotional bond with visitors.

Front Desk Staff greeting at the Riverside Museum , Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo Credits – Heather Robertson, Curator Transport & Technology, Riverside Museum , Glasgow)

Even the process of interpretation in a museum setting can be made more comprehensible and enjoyable for the audiences with little efforts made by museum staff. The ‘learning team’ at Boston Children’s Museum, Massachusetts, United States have created a free ‘Learning Together’ curriculum. This curriculum is like a guideline manual for museums which helps museums to focus on their staff training to effectively engage children and adults.

Boston Children’s Museum Learning Staff conducting session with children.        (Photo Credits – website Boston Children’s Museum)

CAPABILITY ACTIVATION

As museums embrace more and more visitor centricity, the criticality of packaging of the services and facilities as complete experience constructs increases. It is important to bring alive the service orientation as actual features of the museum visit experience.

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We find an increased focus on design, accessibility, visitor facilities etc.  Features such as baby rooms, rest areas, well equipped cafeteria, unique gift shops, venue rental services all help feed the notion of hospitality.

By embracing the hospitality element in the museums and their services museums take a step towards generating heritage and cultural tourism. The museum industry at the international scenario has recognised its potential to add more value by becoming key partner in tourism industry. Heritage and cultural tourism is growing in leaps and bounds and museums are playing a vital role in this context by offering themselves as venue partners and supporting local festivals.

An interesting example of a partnership supporting a local festival- Museo Camera and Gurgaon Women’s Festival

Besides, the corporate sector is in search of unique venues for their events and meetings, so the museums with their overall packaging become one of the best options for this purpose.

Heritage Transport Museum, Gurgaon as a Venue for Corportae Gatherings (Photo Credits – CII)

The empathy towards the museum visitors helps to create human connections and positive memories for lifetime. In this way, museums are transforming into real social and cultural hubs.

They are becoming the places where people can have amazing food, experience awesome art and culture, meet up and hang out with friends and families and sometimes just find a moment to be on their own if so desired.

 COMMUNICATION

Museum professionals have a demanding job as they grapple daily with the task of protecting, preserving and educating people about heritage. Yet sometimes these well intentioned efforts can inadvertently risk side line the very person for whom all the effort is being made i.e. the visitor.

It is the job of the museum leadership to consistently an continuously communicate the vision of why museums exist and what is the larger goal of the specific institution so that hospitality becomes a lived value for all concerned on a daily basis.

Founder and Managing Trustee of Heritage Transport Museum, Mr. Tarun Thakral puts it aptly “Museums should be spaces where people can develop an emotional connect and comfort. Our team is always geared up to make our guests more comfortable so they can have an experience to cherish for lifetime. We endeavour to be one of the new age museums where our guests’ needs and concerns are our top priority. We give a lot of importance to the guest feedback and guest queries are sent to respective departments to make sure that those are answered”.

Dr. Shubha Banerji Education Officer at Rashtrapati Bhawan Museum

Dr. Shubha Banerji Education Officer at Rashtrapati Bhawan Museum says “ Museums are for people where they gain learning in an informal setting. It is important that those settings be more welcoming, it is high time that museum professionals should think beyond giving the basic museum facilities, visitor hospitality services are very much the need of the hour of the museum industry”.

Effective communication and marketing strategies play an important role in the outreach of museum services. The teams should be geared to create awareness of the importance of museum going. The use of social media tools makes the facilitation of service even more effortless.

A post on the Kasturbhai LalBhai Museum’s Facebook page showcasing work done with children

These tools in the form of blogs, information portals, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. provide easy communication channels with audiences. Lots of information about collections, services, special exhibitions and events can be uploaded on these portals, so that the followers and non-visitors using these portals have the information about museum programmes.

In conclusion it is important to remind ourselves that museums would be incomplete without the visitors hence, museums have to ensure that the audiences have a wholesome and wonderful visit to ensure continued sustainability of museum institutions

Author: Ragini Bhat, Curator- HTMGurugram

Edited by : Shreyanka Basu 

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