There has been and continues to be a lot of conversation in the outreach circles about audiences. Some of this tends to center on millennials. But, I like to think more broadly. As archives, we tend to reach a very particular crowd: the academics and the older folk (aka 60+). Now, in all fairness, I don’t have an issue with those crowds. However, for archives to continue to thrive, we have to think beyond these groups.
At my institution, we are a government archives. Making government archives interesting and enticing to the average man or woman is already a bit difficult. Difficult not impossible. And, our audience tends to be the two listed above.
We are more of an archives and a library. We do have an exhibit space but we aren’t a traditional museum. About a year ago, I learned about the Austin Museum Partnership. It’s a professional organization in Austin composed of local museums. As someone who found herself immersed in museum-related responsibilities (Exhibits chair), I liked the idea of being a part of an organization where I could learn from others. So far, the experience has been great.
For the first time ever, the Texas State Library and Archives participated in Austin Museum Day. Each year in September, the museums in Austin and the surrounding areas open their doors for low cost and/or no cost admission to visitors. Not only can they check out the exhibits but museum professionals will offer tours or activities to the public.
At first, while initially excited, I thought who would come to TSLAC (pronounced tee-slack)? What would we have to offer ‘the public.’?
At the time, we had a Wish You Were Here postcard exhibit that was set to close. I thought, why not have a Make Your Own Postcard station. Give people (especially kids) the opportunity to make their own postcards. We would provide all the supplies. From there, I added a Show and Tell station, a chance to view original postcards from our collections. Make archives a tactile experience. Rather than view postcards behind half an inch of glass, they can hold them (in mylar of course). Read the messages for themselves. Lastly, tapping into a contact within my institution, we offered FREE face painting. (Side note: I had the opportunity of working with a coworker who dabbled in art and did face painting for fun).
Now the challenges were this: TSLAC isn’t typically open on Sunday AND we are tucked away on the east side of the Texas Capitol complex. Not super easy to spot. For the first, that was an easy fix to make sure we would be open but the question was: would people come? Second, one of my volunteers on the day graciously offered to go out on the Capitol grounds and round people up. And that she did!
So you’re probably wondering: why is this post called the untapped audience? As it turns out, by taking this leap, we reached an audience that doesn’t normally come to us. And, if they do, they seldom linger. During the 4 hours we were open, I saw families and younger adults (under age 60). With the kids occupied at the various stations, parents had a moment to check out our exhibit. To really take in what it is we have to offer. I fielded many questions where people were curious about who we are, what we do, and what we have. I’d wager that the parents were more keen on the Show and Tell station then their kids. They held the postcards. Read the messages and asked questions. The younger adults joined right in on the Make Your Own Postcard station. They, like the kids, enjoyed the hands on activities. They too stopped to ask questions.
For a first time participant, TSLAC had over 100 visitors in a 4 hour window!
The point of this is, dear reader, don’t be afraid to jump out there. To try an event for an audience you don’t normally reach. I am extremely fortunate that the Austin Museum Partnership exists and that they do Austin Museum Day. The great thing was they handled all of the promotion from radio spots, to newspaper articles, to social media campaigns. All of it. Because of that, I had more time I could devote to thinking about the activities.
My general guidelines for reaching the untapped audience:
- Start small – We could have done so much more but since this was our first time, I opted to just do 4 hours and 3 stations.
- Don’t be afraid (to succeed or fail) – A lot of outreach is trial and error. This event could have easily gone south. Our event was a solid success. I like to think that more people are aware of us after today than before.
Based on feedback back from visitors, I already have some ideas for next year. Maybe we can even break 200! *fingers crossed*