Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A good conversation

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience

Every so often I go out onto the floor of our exhibition galleries and startle the visitors. Well, actually I ask them questions about their experience. Once they’ve got over the shock of this impertinence [and understand that I’m not trying to sell them something] they are usually quite pleased to talk.

I feel quite reticent about intruding on their experience, but to be honest, the bigger hurdle for me is the fear of hearing what I don’t want to hear. What if they don’t like us? What if they’d rather be at the mall, or staring at a wall? Nonetheless, the conversation is always, always helpful.

Not long ago I happened upon Nick Poole’s very challenging post, A Difficult Conversation I won’t try to summarize the piece - it’s worth reading in full - it revolves around a difficult conversation with friends who questioned the worth of museums in the 21st century. “Your industry is like typesetters, or vinyl manufacturers. Its time has come and gone. The real question is how long it’s going to take you all to realise what has happened,” said one. Now, that’s hard to hear.

When I read the post, I was already feeling rather discouraged that the second decade of this new millennium might prove to be particularly hard for museums - financial pressure, declining travel trends, enormous societal shifts around discretionary time and the place of the web in delivering information and social contact. And the post made me more despondent.

And then I went for my stroll in the galleries.

I met a young woman with her 5 year old daughter deep in conversation at the foot of our wonderful mammoth. I asked whether the mammoth was making her nervous. ‘No’, said the mother… ‘She loves visiting the mammoth. We come here every week. In fact, she’s decided to become a paleontologist.

2011 feels a little brighter.

Tim Willis

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