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MAKING WAVES: Meet Deborah Frieden Arts and Culture Consultant

April 2, 2020 | Allyson Hitte | Press Room, Press Room/Blog

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For our Spring/Summer issue of Musings, we chatted with Deborah about the role of cultural organizations in modern day communities.


Q: What role do you think cultural organizations should play in their communities? 

Cultural organizations, particularly museums, play an increasingly vital role in communities by providing authentic experiences that transcend and counter the impersonal digital world. They are respected and trusted sources for information at a time when few other sources are trusted. And finally, museums and cultural organizations provide platforms to discuss or engage with issues that might be difficult to encounter in other settings—such as in the news, on television, or even discussions among friends.


Q: Are they an economic driver? How so?

Absolutely, and community leaders have long understood this. Museums and cultural organizations improve the quality of life and increase educational opportunities, which leads to a more creative workforce that can compete in the global economy. A great quality of life and educational opportunities also mean that more people want to live in that community. With that, businesses thrive because they can attract the employees they need and also find increased economic vitality from growing populations with good jobs.


Q: How can museums remain economically viable while preserving the past, promoting the present, and anticipating the future?

This is a tough question to answer because there is no ‘magic wand’ although we all wish there was. First, the institution must be relevant to its community, and where possible, reach out beyond its immediate area because viability is entirely dependent on how much people need and enjoy what you offer. For over 20 years, museums have understood that they need to be more open, welcoming, and flexible. With the rapid changes happening around us in technology, science, and other fields, museums have to be resilient and they need to experiment to see what works in their community. Audiences have very different expectations for ‘experience’ than they did even 20 years ago. Being open to trying new things and really thinking about how a visitor experiences the museum, from before they arrive until they leave, is ever critical. This does not mean jumping on every new idea out there. It does mean studying what your colleagues are doing, and reaching out into your community and talking to everyone—from educators to school children to business people and so on—to really understand how better to serve the community. Find multi-format means for engaging with your audience. It cannot be done from an ivory tower any more.


Q: What do you think public expectations are for experiences and education at museums?

As mentioned above, this is changing a lot and at the same time, certain things remain the same. First, audiences want access to ideas and experiences they can’t get elsewhere. They also want enough consistency in quality presentations, interpretation, and engagement so they can continue to trust the institution. Second, we need to remember that audiences are diverse and they want different things. Offerings that range in type and content can help attract audiences who might otherwise not come. Since one-off experiences do not encourage consistent visitation, it is important to build on new programs with follow-up programming so that new audiences want to return. Finally, the voice of authority is increasingly in question, and museums need to provide alternative perspectives in their educational programs and exhibition interpretation. Many institutions have done this through layered interpretation—such as through audio tours—but it needs to be deeper and more broad than that in everything the museum does.


31205KLearn more about Deborah by visiting her website and learning about all the amazing projects she leads to improve cultural institutions around the country.