To Make Blockbuster Shows, Museums Are Turning to Focus Groups

To Make Blockbuster Shows, Museums Are Turning to Focus Groups

Last January, 14 members of the British public entered a wood-paneled room behind the British Museum for a secret presentation. They have been there to find out about an exhibition nonetheless in growth, which the museum needed saved underneath wraps.

Onscreen in a prerecorded video, the museum’s curator of Roman and Iron Age cash, Richard Abdy, outlined his plans for a present about life within the Roman Empire’s military. The exhibition would take guests from a soldier’s recruitment to his retirement, he stated, and would characteristic a whole bunch of objects, together with the armor that warriors wore on the battlefield and letters they wrote residence to their households.

When the presentation was completed, a employees member from Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, an organization that runs focus teams, requested the museum goers for his or her ideas on elements of Abdy’s plan, together with which forms of artifacts the museum ought to present, how they need to be organized and even how a lot entry ought to price.

Most of the individuals appeared excited, in keeping with an anonymized report for the British Museum. Several attendees stated they particularly preferred that the exhibition would give attention to the tales of particular person troopers, together with on a regular basis topics like their meals and pay.

Other individuals have been extra essential. “It comes throughout a bit dry,” one stated. “It can be fairly boring for a child,” stated one other.

For many years, politicians have used focus teams to check insurance policies and slogans, and companies have relied on such teams to judge their merchandise. But a number of the world’s most famous museums have additionally been utilizing the advertising analysis method to fine-tune exhibitions, develop advertising supplies and guarantee they entice the broadest attainable viewers.

For “Legion: Life within the Roman Army,” which opened final week, that meant making the curator’s imaginative and prescient a bit extra family-friendly. Beneath lots of the artifacts are panels aimed toward younger guests, that includes easy explanations of the objects, and cartoons from “Horrible Histories,” a preferred British kids’s TV present and e book collection.

Among shows of historical armor, kids can strive on a duplicate soldier’s helmet, and may measure their peak to see in the event that they met the Roman military’s strict requirements. (Soldiers needed to be no less than 5 ft 6 inches tall.)

The British Museum has been utilizing focus teams for the reason that mid-2000s, stated Stuart Frost, who oversees that work. Sometimes the attendees’ suggestions might be “a shock to the curatorial ego,” Frost stated, giving the instance of a 2017 exhibition on the Scythians, nomadic tribespeople from Siberia. When that present was in growth, he recalled, not a single focus group member had heard of the Scythians. “I keep in mind sitting reverse the curator and seeing his eyebrows increase in shock,” Frost stated — however that suggestions helped the museum pitch the present on the proper stage for the general public.

Initial plans for an exhibition on the Rosetta Stone, the artifact that helped reveal the that means of Egyptian hieroglyphs, additionally obtained an surprising response, Frost recalled. Focus group individuals stated that an entire present in regards to the stone didn’t excite them, as a result of its story was already well-known and the article was prominently displayed within the museum’s everlasting assortment. The curators refocused the exhibition, which opened in 2022, so it explored what hieroglyphs, as soon as deciphered, had confirmed about life in historical Egypt.

At different instances, focus teams gave museum directors the boldness to go forward with reveals over which they’d doubts. When Frost organized classes earlier than a 2013 exhibition on erotic Japanese woodblock prints, often called shunga, he was involved that individuals would say such sexually express artwork was unsuited to a present on the British Museum, he stated. The individuals “accepted them as artwork,” Frost stated, and the present grew to become an R-rated hit.

But, Frost added, an emphatic thumbs-down from a bunch can kill off a present. When the museum examined an early-stage concept for a present of artifacts from Nubia, the traditional area of northeastern Africa, individuals confirmed little curiosity, he stated, and the exhibition was deserted.

Andrew McIntyre, a director of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, the main target group firm, stated that his agency organized panels for 20 to 30 museums a yr, together with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A spokeswoman for the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, stated that it used teams to search out the “most fascinating angles” for exhibitions.

Focus group analysis was “primarily performed by the biggest museums,” McIntyre stated, due to the fee concerned. (Participants are paid for his or her time, on prime of his firm price.) But there was no purpose an area museum couldn’t strive operating a spotlight group itself, he stated: “Invite 10 individuals in, give them some cake and coffee and ask them what they suppose.”

Touring the “Legion” exhibition, Abdy, the curator, stated that the main target group had “bolstered” his personal concepts for the present, together with the choice to give attention to rank-and-file troopers as a substitute of famend generals. His curatorial ego wasn’t bruised by the method; the truth is, he stated, he seemed ahead to working with focus teams once more.

“It’s all the time a good suggestion to seek the advice of the general public,” Abdy stated.


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