In 2017 a London museum threw open a new set of glass doors onto a contemporary courtyard complex revealing parts of the historic building previously unseen by the public and opened up a fresh perspective on the museum for visitors old and new. By employing a range of broad-brush and deep-dive methodologies over the course of a year, The Audience Agency was able to deliver a comprehensive – and ultimately extremely positive – picture of the impact this new space has had on both the museum’s audiences and its own teams. The enriched experiences that audiences reported, enhancing rather than detracting from the traditional aspects of the building, are a testament to the museum’s commitment to remaining current as well as classic.
Opening a contemporary entrance was an important and ambitious project for the museum – new territory for a historic landmark. Understanding the impact that the alternative entrance, complete with courtyard, café, shop, exhibition space and learning centre, has had on visitors’ attitudes towards the museum is key to its ability to offer an accessible and contemporary experience to an increasingly diverse audience. The Audience Agency was commissioned to review the improvements that the new entrance and complex has made to accessibility, flow and visitor engagement with the museum building, history and offer. The project aimed to grow audiences from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, attract more family groups and improve the recruitment and positive experience of volunteers and interns, all of which The Audience Agency was tasked with evaluating. The research was to focus on four core elements:
- Audience development
- The visitor experience
- Access and engagement
- Professional training opportunities
The Audience Agency understands what constitutes a great visitor experience – what people’s expectations are and everything that goes into realising them – from basic hygiene factors to welcome, interpretation, journey and more. The rigour of our research and ability to invoke a broad range of different methodologies, enables us to layer audience information, each phase of investigation informing the next, to build a comprehensive picture of how a change like this impacts different audiences. The ability to stress our impartiality to audience interviewees, combined with a full spectrum evaluative approach – from broad brush stroke to intensive depth investigations – allows us to offer organisations like the museum an authentic representation of the full impact of a project, beyond simple snapshots.
The evaluation was designed to maximise the potential of an array of both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, to gain a full and clear understanding of how people respond to the new space. The all-weather, all-year, all-audiences approach moved through several stages, each layer of research informing the shape of the next. The evaluation focussed at all stages on how people felt about the various spaces – their emotional and intellectual responses to different ways of experiencing the museum:
Observation of people’s behaviours in the space → Intercept interviews with a random representative visitor sample → Specific visitor journey mapping and touchpoint identification → Tailored interviews about different aspects and areas → Compare and contrast building navigation and routing exercises → Recruited discussion groups with first time and repeat visitors
Beyond these core activities, specific evaluations were designed to understand family experiences and The Audience Agency coordinated the compilation of the museum’s own insights gathered from a range of event and activity participants over the course of the year. Research conducted with members of the new volunteer and internship programs yielded particularly enthusiastic responses.
The research found that the new entrance and courtyard complex had succeeded in meeting all four of its key objectives, namely to:
- Inform and excite people about the museum
- Develop understanding of the building
- Broaden audience reach and deepen engagement
- Deliver training and development opportunities
The Audience Agency found visitor numbers to the museum to have increased hugely following the opening of the new entrance, which audiences found to be visually appealing, intellectually stimulating and, crucially, far easier to navigate. This was a particularly marked improvement amongst family audiences and visitors with disabilities, who were empowered by the accessible layout to engage more easily and independently with both the new environment and the newly visible older spaces. A sustained affection for the historic entrance was matched by real excitement about the contemporary alternative and people expressed genuine enthusiasm to learn more about the design in its own right. On top of the overall 16% increase in visitors, attendees identifying as being from a BAME ethnic background increased by almost 240,000 people, first-time visits increased by nearly a million and new family audiences tripled. Terms like “history”, “interesting” and “old” were overtaken by “bright”, “welcoming” and “modern” and new faces are being turned into loyal visitors:
"I thought it would be boring but having been in I feel completely differently."
"It just blew my expectations away. I’m actually coming back tomorrow."
First-time visitors to the museum
While audiences are most comfortable returning to outdoor events, organising a festival that can flex around ever-changing restrictions is still no mean feat. Penny Mills and Jonathan Goodacre have been looking at what’s working.
Unpredictable and changing circumstances are making it difficult to plan any festival this summer but we are a resourceful lot in the cultural sector.