Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Focus groups

Before its exhibition Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation, the Minneapolis Institute of Art ran focus groups resulting in changes to exhibition materials.

Menachem Wecker, More museums turn to focus groups, but do they help or hinder?, The Art Newspaper, 24 June 2016

Museums are using market research to engage audiences and avoid gaffes, but the process could rule out all but the famous and the safe

Focus groups are not just for makeup and snack food any more. Museums are increasingly using the popular market research tool to gather input from the public and refine exhibitions and programmes. Originally developed to gauge the effectiveness of propaganda during the Second World War, focus groups are “a new trend” among art institutions, says Louise Mirrer, the president of the New-York Historical Society. Before its exhibition Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation (30 October 2016-15 January 2017), the Minneapolis Institute of Art ran six 90-minute focus groups: two with Lutherans, two with other religious audiences and two with non-religious visitors. Curators, educators and communications staff watched on a live feed in another room.

“We wanted to understand where our different audiences are coming from,” says Kristin Prestegaard, the museum’s chief engagement officer. Changes were made to exhibition materials after the focus groups revealed that non-Lutherans know little about the Reformation while Lutherans are less familiar with Luther’s anti-Semitism late in life.

The museum plans to hire a full-time evaluator to run focus groups later this year. “We really want to be visitor and audience-focused. We’re all in on that,” Prestegaard says.

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has run focus groups since reinstalling its collection in 2007. When consulted about the exhibition Dance! American Art 1830-1960 (until 12 June), some participants felt that Native American ghost dances were too sacred to depict. In the end, the two works that showed the ritual remained in the exhibition, but wall labels gave a respectful explanation of the spiritual meaning of the dances. Now, the museum is taking public consultation even further by reserving four spots for community members on a brainstorming team dedicated to the reinstallation of its Asian collection.

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