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Communicating the Museum in the modern age

The Whitworth, Manchester

Strategy and Communications Intern and Philospohy and Spanish student Andrew Bennett considers the role of communication in today's museums and galleries. 

Cultural centres, whether they be galleries, museums or theatres, have a fairly unique privilege, not felt in other forms of business. While profit remains a front-runner in their list of deliverables, this is often trumped by concept, meaning the one is rarely dictated by the other.

In recent years, artistic emphases on personal freedoms and rejections of authority have resulted in an irony of sorts. Fuelled even further by the endless possibilities of the Internet, everyone can now participate in cultural debate and criticism, leading to a rejection of the artistic authorities that introduced the very concept.

This contemporary audience is now so acutely aware of its preferences that galleries and museums are increasingly threatened by other sources of ‘culture’, e.g. TV, online and rival establishments. Curators and authors have been demoted and the lines have been blurred between amateur blogger and academic.

The audience has to be pulled in and listened to for any significant engagement.

This fierce competition forces cultural institutions to move away from the inhibitive,‘culture is pure’mantra. Instead, a thing or two could be learned from marketeers. Rather than pushing information and agendas onto the public, the audience has to be pulled in and listened to for any significant engagement.

The biggest indicator of this is that, according to the Meaningful Brands framework, “most people would not care if 74% of all brands disappeared for good”. So, it is no longer enough to just be trusted by consumers; brands must make a meaningful impact on lives. Cultural centres must therefore change their focus from merely presenting exhibits to genuinely interacting with their guests.

Brands must make a meaningful impact on lives.

All in all, to stay relevant in the modern era, establishments must balance visitors’freedom to roam with their own, institutional presence - the very thing found, for example, at The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester.

Situated near the areas of Moss Side and Hulme, the gallery’s recent £15m redesign prioritised making itself accessible to those who may not ordinarily go to museums. They looked to be much more engaged with their audience, and were clearly successful as there was more than a fivefold increase in visitors in the month after reopening.

This increasingly attentive approach is also channeled elsewhere, as the gallery also runs after-hours cultural events and many wellbeing projects, the latter exploring the roles of art in child development and stroke recovery. This is all targeted at enabling guests to enjoy art individually, with the gallery positioning itself as the essential platform from which this takes place.

Ultimately, The Whitworth has reinforced itself as a meaningful brand, building on its location to directly engage those coming through its doors. As many other arts institutions suffer from budget cuts, they could take inspiration from The Whitworth to understand how to stay relevant, despite increased cultural competition. Although many may not be able to afford a redesign, the gallery’s repositioning still has many lessons to offer.

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