What about the Insiders?

While Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance presented compelling and important arguments, I was left thinking that the solutions she advanced did not address the complexity and nuance of different types of museum visitors.  In her dichotomy between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, Simon differentiates between museum visitors who are regulars– the ‘insiders’–and those who need to be given the ‘key of relevance’ before even thinking of visiting the museum–the ‘outsiders’.  In addressing the issue of relevance, Simon offers suggestions for motivating ‘outsiders’ to visit and become invested in what the museum has to offer. She writes, “to be relevant you need to cultivate open-hearted insiders, who are pleased to let new people in even if it requires a little change” on the terms of the ‘outsiders’ (65). While this sounds nice in an ideal world, practically the museum needs to make sure it is relevant to all its patrons: ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  ‘Insiders’ are probably not going to have the open-hearts that Simon suggests cultivating, as they too see themselves as customers who expect to receive the services they seek. Furthermore, while Simon focuses on ways to expand the museum-visitor population beyond the small and homogenous ‘insiders’ group, she does not recognize the dependency that museums may have on their ‘insiders’.  Those ‘insiders’ may be donors, key supporters and/or steady, regular visitors of the museum, whom the institution cannot afford to alienate. In this sense the museum must remain relevant to its ‘insiders’, while expanding its relevance to ‘outsiders’.

The non-profit I worked for last year made this very mistake. Although not a museum, the organization–unintentionally–followed Simon’s advice and attempted to make its mission more relevant to the younger generation, so to expand its membership. However, in employing this very tactic the non-profit alienated its older and committed population who felt they were being neglected. As most donations came from this older, more established membership, the organization suffered financial losses and had to reconsider its future activities. While I completely agree with Simon’s emphasis on the need for museums to reach out to their local communities and become relevant to a more diverse population, I feel that her quick and overly optimistic assumption that ‘insiders’ would adapt and be on-board does not reflect the complexity and difficulties involved.

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