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Museums are not only holders of our histories and stories, but also repositories of a range of emotions, elicited when we encounter collections, writes Lucy Bird.

'Project What If' exhibition at We The Curious. Eight tv screens showing different visual imagery.
'Project What If' exhibition at We The Curious

Thomas Buttery, Limbic Cinema

Art can make you see, think, and feel differently. Until the pandemic, when we were unable to visit museums and galleries, many didn’t realise the extent of the role they play in our emotional well-being. We took them for granted.

Acutely aware of this loss, and curious about the variety of individual experience, at Art Fund we wanted to learn more about what people feel when they are engaging with museums. As our primary purpose is to help museums engage more people with art, we were particularly interested in which emotions drive public support for museums, why certain emotions are more powerful than others, and how museums might engage hearts, as well as minds.

Our new report, Pleasure, Connection, Purpose, co-commissioned with the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) and undertaken by behavioural research and insights consultancy M.E.L, explores how museums can leverage the power of emotions to build greater public support across short-term campaigning and long-term museum work.

Creating emotionally resonant campaigns 

2023 continues to be an enormously challenging time for museums across the devolved nations. Many are experiencing rising operation costs and budget cuts, just as they endeavour to recover their pre-pandemic visitor numbers and income. AIM’s recent impacts survey found 40% of surveyed organisations were planning to scale down activity, and more than a third struggling to increase income given economic pressures.

Mounting emotionally resonant and responsive campaigns is required in the face of such unpredictable challenges. There are many examples of passionate people campaigning to ‘save’ local museums: Art Fund’s free crowdfunding platform ‘Art Happens’ has seen over £1 million raised for 55 museum projects with museums and audiences working together.

For those developing campaigns, the report contains case-studies and guidance on how people are mobilised, what motivates those involved, and what narratives or strategies resonate most effectively. The research concludes that museums can spark feelings of pleasure, purpose and connection in visitors, communities and the wider general public. 

Campaigns which play on pleasure are the easiest to evoke but can result in fleeting support; those inspiring connection induce a greater response from a wider cross-section of the public; while ones which evoke purpose are most powerful but also most difficult to build. The report identifies nine emotional drivers as the building blocks for creating pleasure, connection and purpose. They are pride, hope, fulfilment, belonging, nostalgia, ownership, curiosity, excitement and awe. 

Also included in the report are tips on identifying how a museum resonates emotionally with its audiences; and guidance on how to elicit the emotions most relevant to it. The ability to articulate the pertinence of an emotion and to foster it provides an opportunity to build tailored campaigns which successfully connect museums and galleries with their specific audiences.

Building long-term emotional connection

Throughout the winter, museums have provided an important lifeline to their communities. Not only have many opened their doors as ‘warm spaces’ to support those in need, but they remain essential in supporting civic pride, economic growth, learning, and health and well-being. To ensure the continuation and expansion of these positive impacts, an understanding of how to leverage emotions to build ongoing support can help museums, funders, and sector support organisations make a more compelling case to the public and policymakers.

Of the nine key emotions cited, ownership stood out when reflecting on possible implications for influencing policy. Museum professionals interviewed for the research spoke of tick-box approaches to community engagement which limit a sense of ownership as audiences are often only consulted during short-term funding programmes. 

The report recommends fostering a long-term feeling of ownership through maintaining a sustained dialogue addressing the needs of communities, and by telling their stories through contemporary collections. As we continue to navigate swings from crisis to crisis - and policy to policy – it’s a useful reminder of the importance of creating and sustaining a sense community ownership - in programmes and in collections. 

A strategic approach to government funding, which enables museums, galleries and communities to have ownership over their future planning beyond the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, could make all the difference. Local authorities across the UK, with their democratic legitimacy, understanding of local communities and services, and ability to broker partnerships in a place, are well positioned to help. 

While emotional responses to collections and exhibitions are varied and nuanced, an understanding of how to translate these feelings into people-powered support for the sector could enable community-centred campaigning and advocacy which is both responsive and enduring.

Lucy Bird is Policy Manager at Art Fund.

To hear more about our latest research, funding and marketing support for museums, sign up to Museum Bulletin, our monthly newsletter for arts professionals.

This article, sponsored and contributed by Art Fund, is part of a series sharing information and expertise to support museums and galleries to recover from the pandemic and develop audiences for the future.

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Image of Lucy Bird