Some reflections on audience engagement

At the Inspiration Day at the Captain Cook Museum, I reflected briefly on some aspects of what we are trying to do and was invited to put these on the blog.   We are all seeking to broaden and deepen audience engagement, with particular attention to themes of exploration.  It is in relation to these that I would like to make a couple of points with regard to our displays of the painting and how we might achieve a more nuanced understanding of its impact on audiences.


First, there is a lot of academic work about audience engagement, and the relationship of engagement to understanding.  This is highly developed as far as the sciences and STEM subjects are concerned (for example the Public Understanding of Science initiatives), but this work also applies to a degree to the arts, or to those subjects, such as exploration which cross fields and disciplines, particularly when we are talking about a natural history painting by an anatomical painter at the heart of London Enlightenment culture.  How do we define engagement?  Engagement after all is not the same as understanding.  It is a messy process, partially initiated in our museums but unfinished, hard to define let alone measure, a process which may differ hugely between individuals and in different places.


Secondly, when we think about audiences and how they react to the painting, I think we should be intensely conscious of the differences between our institutions.  We are a small independent, a personality museum devoted above all to the life and achievements of a man who is deservedly regarded as one of Britain’s maritime heroes.  In addition, we are the only one of the partnership which perforce charges for entry.  By contrast, The Maritime is a national institution with a huge broad ranging collection to match; the Grant a 19th century anatomy museum; the Hunterian is based on the collection of an a major Enlightenment figure and maintains a great deal of that mission;  the Horniman was the first private collection (above all of anthropology, musical instruments and natural history) to be donated to the newly formed London County Council at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, together with its extensive gardens.  This is a crude characterisation, but to make the point, these are different museum types!  Let me pursue that train of thought, and think about the differences in location and building type, because these are factors which affect, constrain or encourage both ways of display and audience behaviours.


The National Maritime has at its heart a royal palace, a small bijou palace to be sure, but nevertheless a palace in the centre of a World Heritage site, in the metropolis, with views not only over the Thames but across the river to the financial heart of the nation and beyond.


The Grant is part of a university, one which features among the top ten world’s great universities, next to a hospital, which is nicely apt for an anatomy museum.  The building type is that of a 19th century museum, with its closely packed free-standing cases and wall-cased gallery above.  It most closely resembles the old building of the Royal College of Surgeons.


The Hunterian is also part of a university, located in Scotland’s second city (its denizens might say it is the first city), and also a public museum, as intended by its founder.  While the earliest museum building was a nice Enlightenment temple, it has grown enormously, and the main Gilmorehill building most resembles a fortress of 19th century civic pride.


The Horniman is in the suburbs of metropolitan London, in an engaging Arts & Crafts building, in a style which the architect intended to be both stylistically innovative but also friendly, accessible and free of obvious classical stylistic references with all that those signified.  That sort of Arts & Crafts architecture was a popular choice used when wanting to engage non-elite audiences.


And us, we are in a small, relatively unimportant seaside town, with only one remaining shipyard and one trawler working out of the port.  But it is a town with a hugely significant history, especially in maritime terms.  And we are in a domestic house, down a lane at the end of a terrace, our neighbouring Elizabethan building Tyn Ghaut having been demolished in the 1950s as a slum and replaced by a less than evocative car park.


Cook Museum - Grape Lane Frontage

Cook Museum – Grape Lane Frontage

So let me consider for a moment some of the qualities of a house-museum in terms of public engagement, and here I draw on the anthropological work of Thomas Soderqvist and Anette Stenslund at the University of Copenhagen/the Medical Museion, Copenhagen, and Ken Arnold and Louise Whiteley at the Wellcome Institute, London, who have generously allowed me to refer to some of the themes in a piece of their as yet unpublished work.


They argue that different types of public engagement happen in places that are organised and operated as houses.  So they ask, how should we allow for engagement?  I will apply some of their reasoning to the Captain Cook Museum.  A house is – generally – a home, and a home has an atmosphere (of one type or another) which is closely related to its location and scale.   A house has rooms, rather than galleries or exhibition halls.  The scale of rooms here in John Walker’s house is small – often one cannot get more than half-a-dozen people in them.  But small rooms, and those with unexpected nooks and crannies (or for that matter, sudden views or glimpses of the outside) have a surprising ability to create an atmosphere of intensive encounter with an object – in other words, to create the conditions for a meaningful and memorable face-to-face meeting.  I do not argue that people necessarily react wholly differently in large or middle-sized rooms, and it all depends on how you might wish to shape that encounter within whatever environment you may be working.


Going on, in a house the relationships between things (objects) and people is different, and even in rooms which may be organised primarily for display, there is a lived-in feel.  The Scientists Room has a chair, a desk, pictures on the panelling as well as display cases.  It is therefore an intimate, even conversational sort of place, which elicits sensory reactions – the colours, sounds, and shapes of things.  If it is in a place which has strong historic connections with a person, which can be translated into distinctive ‘atmosphere’ through the perceived authenticity of setting and objects, then the potential for engagement is strong.  One of the things that visitors say to me fairly frequently is ‘I could live here!’  That is evidence at least of some engagement!


The Kongouro on display in the Cook Museum

The Kongouro on display in the Cook Museum

So one way of looking at it is that we invite visitors in as temporary inhabitants, or even as guests, who may be conscious of the delicate balance between public and private in any house or home environment, who have paid to enter and who generally accept the codes of behaviour of the ‘house-owners’ or custodians, and may even show respect for their knowledge and expertise.   And the atmosphere of the house creates not just an attitude of receptivity in the visitor for experiences and new ideas, but also, hopefully, lays down triggers for memory and for the imagination.


In brief, what I am saying is that the display of this single object, this painting, in five very different locations and settings creates the conditions for different kinds of engagement by visitors, but also a puzzle as to how to evaluate and use those experiences in our future planning and displays.  What sorts of public engagement are we trying to elicit?  To me, the fact that this is far from a level playing field is a hugely stimulating thought.  If we are alert to those broader factors which shape the behaviours and attitudes of visitors – location, building type, circulation patterns, and atmosphere are just a few – then we have wonderful opportunities to encourage curiosity-driven investigation of cultures by our many and varied visitors.