Notes on The Art of Visitor Engagement

“Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good” – Headline in the New York Times, 24/3/19

You belong in a museum. You really do. They are not just somewhere to bring the kids and/or a place to nurse your Saturday-morning hangover. Great museums provoke feelings of belonging, nostalgia, wonder, horror, amusement and frank empathy. They are the creaky old door to a thousand new versions of you.

In the Little Museum of Dublin, some of our work is what might be called museological. We have a remit to conserve a collection created by public donation. We do this work in trust for the people of Dublin, to promote public understanding of its history. But most of our focus is outward-looking; and while we care a lot about education, we use entertainment as the vehicle for its delivery. The museum is like a Rube Goldberg machine with a series of apparently random events that indirectly enable the production of applause.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.

We admire other museums – the Teylers in Haarlem is my own favourite, and Dublin itself has many great cultural institutions – but in trying to become world-class there is no one institution that we want to emulate. Further, we don’t really go in for high-tech solutions (which are increasingly popular in other museums) as we are skeptical about digital answers to communications challenges.

We also recognise, however, that the internet has changed everything, and that the very definition of a city museum is up for grabs. The genre is as tired and knackered as a sign telling you that this piece of technology is not working at present.

In our own city museum we specialise in three things: history, hospitality and humour. That last word could just as easily be personality, gift of the gab, craic, good conversation. The point is that the museum should reflect the salty humour of Dublin itself: what Louis Macneice called “The catcalls and the pain, The glamour of her squalor, The bravado of her talk.”

For inspiration we often look to the worlds of theatre and hospitality, where they know all about keeping guests happy for an hour or two. Hence we hire for attitude, our team is trained to deliver exceptional service, and we seek the counsel of great actors, theatre producers and hotel managers. Because of these conversations, we will soon launch a remarkable new theatrical installation about the Magdalene Laundries, and we already have our Oscar Wilde Fellowship – a six-month residency for theatre professionals, with a brief to create moments of drama throughout the visitor journey. Entertainment and hospitality inform the visitor experience in a museum about a city that is synonymous with both.

Our work is already award-winning in Ireland – and in the Europa Nostra Awards – but we are not yet world-class. Some of that journey to world-class is about material things like moving, building, painting; some of it will happen concurrently as we improve the quality and quantity of our famous guided tours.

With that ambition in mind I recently attended an excellent workshop in the Abbey Theatre for guides in cultural institutions. Sponsored by Failte Ireland and led by Phil Kingston of the Abbey, the workshop encouraged participants to reflect on the art of visitor engagement, as well as the principles of storytelling, which are timeless. If you’re serious about providing exemplary customer service, said Kingston, you need a good, well-constructed tale, and you need to tell it with some panache.

Our tour guides are brilliant personalities. They have an attitude of friendliness and enthusiasm, and they are a talented group of people. We encourage them to make each tour as performative as possible, and we ask that all guides learn one of our tours before exposing them to a public that is sometimes capricious and demanding. Each tour guide considers clarity, length, breadth of age, first language and humour, as well as political, religious and moral sensitivities.

When they add things to their tour, we ask guides to make our guests laugh or cry, because it’s not enough to be interested. As Phil Kingston from the Abbey put it, “You want your visitors to be emotionally engaged.” Kingston brought a sharp theatrical focus to the business of keeping customers awake and entertained, sometimes fighting jet lag and/or a language barrier.

Our tours privilege powerful imagery and penetrating metaphors. Humour is essential, and specificity is important. (As Carl Rogers observed, the most personal is the most general.) We have recently developed a Women’s History of Dublin, a Singing Tour of Dublin, and a Literary History. Lately we have realised that the primary artefacts in our collection are the house and our team; that entertainment is the perfect front for education; and that human contact is now becoming a luxury good.

We are far from perfect, but we’re trying hard. Every day, our wonderful team open a door to a thousand new versions of you. Telling the story of our city in a way that is low-tech, intimate and performative, we are determined to create a world-class museum experience here in Dublin.

We look forward to showing you around.

Trevor White, April 2019