Life Style

To Make Blockbuster Shows, Museums Are Turning to Focus Groups


Final 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 study an exhibition nonetheless in improvement, which the museum needed stored 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 mentioned, and would function tons of of objects, together with the armor that warriors wore on the battlefield and letters they wrote house to their households.

When the presentation was completed, a workers 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 kinds of artifacts the museum ought to present, how they need to be organized and even how a lot entry ought to price.

Many of the individuals appeared excited, in keeping with an anonymized report for the British Museum. A number of attendees mentioned they particularly favored that the exhibition would deal with the tales of particular person troopers, together with on a regular basis topics like their meals and pay.

Different individuals have been extra important. “It comes throughout a bit dry,” one mentioned. “It will be fairly boring for a child,” mentioned one other.

For many years, politicians have used focus teams to check insurance policies and slogans, and companies have relied on such teams to guage their merchandise. However a few of the world’s most famed museums have additionally been utilizing the advertising and marketing analysis approach to fine-tune exhibitions, develop advertising and marketing supplies and guarantee they entice the broadest potential viewers.

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

Amongst shows of historic armor, kids can attempt on a reproduction soldier’s helmet, and may measure their peak to see in the event that they met the Roman military’s strict requirements. (Troopers needed to be a minimum of 5 ft 6 inches tall.)

The British Museum has been utilizing focus teams for the reason that mid-2000s, mentioned Stuart Frost, who oversees that work. Generally the attendees’ suggestions might be “a shock to the curatorial ego,” Frost mentioned, giving the instance of a 2017 exhibition on the Scythians, nomadic tribespeople from Siberia. When that present was in improvement, 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 elevate in shock,” Frost mentioned — however that suggestions helped the museum pitch the present on the proper degree for the general public.

Preliminary plans for an exhibition on the Rosetta Stone, the artifact that helped reveal the that means of Egyptian hieroglyphs, additionally acquired an sudden response, Frost recalled. Focus group individuals mentioned 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 historic Egypt.

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

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

Andrew McIntyre, a director of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, the main target group firm, mentioned that his agency organized panels for 20 to 30 museums a yr, together with the San Francisco Museum of Fashionable Artwork and the Museum of Advantageous Arts, Boston. A spokeswoman for the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, mentioned that it used teams to seek out the “most attention-grabbing angles” for exhibitions.

Focus group analysis was “primarily carried out by the biggest museums,” McIntyre mentioned, due to the associated fee concerned. (Individuals are paid for his or her time, on high of his firm payment.) However there was no cause a neighborhood museum couldn’t attempt operating a spotlight group itself, he mentioned: “Invite 10 individuals in, give them some cake and low and ask them what they suppose.”

Touring the “Legion” exhibition, Abdy, the curator, mentioned that the main target group had “strengthened” his personal concepts for the present, together with the choice to deal with rank-and-file troopers as a substitute of famend generals. His curatorial ego wasn’t bruised by the method; in reality, he mentioned, he appeared 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 mentioned.


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