Asking and listening

I am relatively new to the museum field, having recently made a career change. I work in the new media program, which is also a new field for me. I am not really a new media, Web 2.0 kind of guy. I still prefer books to the Internet. I’m trying to learn, though, mostly through asking tons of questions and doing a lot of listening. I find myself in an interesting place: between the older generation of museum employees who have made their careers here and the younger employees whose careers are just getting started. They both have so much to offer, but they also have very different ideas of how to interact with our visitors—at the museum, in our neighborhood, and online. Is it about using Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Youtube, or is it about pre- and post-visit interviews and audience polling? Is it about getting out into the community, focusing on our on-site visitors, or using emerging technologies? Is it all of the above?

3052691825_309fb69415_oI'm on the far right asking a visitor what he thinks about the History Explorer Web site.

I started working here at a very interesting time. In my brief tenure, I have witnessed the closing, renovation, and reopening of the museum. I have seen the huge crowds of people that come here almost every day. We’re always thinking about how to better serve our audiences—local, international, young, old—everybody. We are the nation’s history museum, after all. I end up playing devil’s advocate at many meetings because although I am most comfortable with doing things the old way, I have learned the value of trying new things. It is why I challenged myself to change careers and take this job. I do like the thought of involving our visitors as much as possible in our decision making process and it is obvious that many of my colleagues feel the same way. So, I’ll practice what I preach and do the same thing with this blog post that I do with my colleagues. I’ll ask a bunch of questions and do a lot of listening:

  • How do you feel the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Institution, or museums in general, can better attract new audiences?
  • Are we doing a good job connecting with the ones we already have?
  • What are we doing right?
  • How can we improve?

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Paul Molholm is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History.