Subtle changes could help cultural organisations become more welcoming, attract more visitors and potentially increase donations.

Photo from Manchester Museum collaboration

Common Cause Foundation / Manchester Museum

Deciding whether to emphasise an artefact’s beauty, or its rarity, says a lot about an arts organisation. So too does the decision to ask people for donations to keep their next visit free, or to keep visits free for everyone.

This is the logic behind a new guide produced by the Common Cause Foundation and Manchester Museum, Discover and Share, which says subtle changes could affect how welcoming and inclusive arts organisations seem.

Building on learning from the Happy Museum project, the guide calls on arts organisations of all shapes and sizes to adopt a ‘values-approach’ to interactions between visitors and staff. It claims that by emphasising more compassionate values – such as social justice and equality – theatres, museums and concert halls can facilitate a stronger community and aspirations for “learning, tolerance, broadmindedness and the protection of the natural world”.

It also warns organisations not to radiate hierarchy, competition and other ‘self-interest’ values, as doing so lowers concern about social and environmental issues, increases social alienation, and lowers engagement in community activities.

“It’s not that arts organisations are not currently compassionate,” explained Melissa Henry, Director of the Common Cause Foundation. “It’s that by changing we can better assure a more cohesive, socially just and environmentally-aware society.”

She told AP some of the lessons in the guide initially appear counter-intuitive, but operating in this manner can increase appetite for a venue’s cultural offer. For instance, she said, arts marketers are usually taught to relate to people individually, but values-led thinking encourages marketers to emphasise the collective benefit of donating.

Similarly, the guide warns that 77% of people overestimate the importance that others attach to self-interest values, and encourages cultural institutions to address this ‘perception gap’.

“The more we underestimate the importance a typical fellow citizen places on ‘compassionate’ values, the less likely we are to act in line with our own ‘compassionate’ values,” it says.

Promoting positive value

Through a series of exercises, the guide encourages organisations to identify their key values and assess subtle signals given off by workspaces.

The authors explain it is not possible to simultaneously promote values at opposite ends of a provided ‘values map’, such as benevolence and hedonism, and encourage organisations to facilitate “explorations of others’ values”.

Manchester Museum’s efforts to deepen visitors’ appreciation of volunteers and to encourage visitors to communicate their shared values are documented in the guide. Following the introduction of games to initiate conversation between visitors and volunteers, one volunteer said it was “lovely to come into a building where the emphasis is on friendliness, kindness and sharing”.