Ignite 2023: Kellian Pletcher

Everything I know about Museum Visitor Engagement I learned from teaching Swing Dance

MCN 2023 Conference
November 8, 2023
World Café Live, Philadelphia


All right, so I am going to talk a little bit about swing dancing, specifically Lindy Hop which is an African American vernacular jazz dance, and I'm going to teach you how to do it. So everybody out of your chairs, go ahead. Super easy. It goes like this. Ready? Come on. Step, step, triple step, step, step, triple step.Get a move forward. Step, triple, then you turn. Step, triple step. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, move forward. One, two. Okay, I'd like you all to note how you feel right now, and just hold on to that deep discomfort in the bottom of your soul, because that is how your museum visitors feel. I would suspect this is probably how it breaks down, right?

So Chris down there is like, I know how to do this, 15%. I know how to dance, 25%. Woo! I'm in. This is fun. 60 percent are like, Oh my God, don't ever make me do this. And this is how your museum visitors feel when they walk into a lobby. Right? 25 percent are like, Oh yeah, I totally know how to do this. 60 percent are like, Oh my God, my kids are going to misbehave. I don't know art. I'm going to be stupid in front of people. I'm going to do something silly. Where's my car? Where are the bathrooms? Please don't let my kids do something terrible. Right? And, and this is this deep, It's a sense of discomfort that people feel when they walk into these museum lobbies and usually when we start a swing dance, or when we start a class, the misconception is we need to teach them everything, right?

Okay, so, they just walked into class, they need to know the history of swing, history of jazz, what is jazz, how is it connected to these five historical people, swivels. But the most important thing that we ever do at a beginning dance class is to get people to the next class. And that's what we have to do at museums.

Thank you! We need to stop treating museum visits like this is a one-shot deal. Because if we've gotten people in there once and never again, we've lost. Because what we're doing is creating lifelong museum enthusiasts, a community of people who care, like we do, about these spaces. So we're gonna try again.

Ready? This is actually a warm up I use. Okay, stand up. We're gonna start by shaking our butts. And now we're gonna turn around while we shake our butts. And now we turn to the center. And now I think we should do some kicks. Kick, and kick, and kick, and kick, and now hop, and hop, and bunny ears, hop. Go ahead, you gotta have the bunny ears up. Yeah, there we go, double time. Hop, hop, hop, hop, hop. More butt shakes. Right, there we go. Oh, I'm so sad that ended. So, going into a dance is a high barrier to entry. Going into a museum is a high barrier to entry. But humor and doing silly things together as a community is a low barrier to entry. And it's a way to get people through the door together.

So then the question is, well, what do you do? When you get them through the door, right? Okay. Everybody's sort of like sweating and giggling together. Well, now we've got to set clear, repeatable patterns for them into this class. So we got to hit the ground running, right? So something fun will get them through the door, but then what?

We give them lots of steps, we keep them going, we keep them moving, we don't give them any opportunity to stop and think about, oh, I look silly. No, no, no. There's all sorts of good stuff in there. Keep going, keep them moving. Now, we are a word, people. We can't help it. All we want to do is tell people about these things that we love so much.

But all the words in the world won't save us. We have to stop talking and let people actually engage with the content that we want them to engage with. Now, that doesn't mean that we abandon them, that we throw them out there and we're like, Oh, you guys figure it out. No, we've been dancing for a long time. We can tell when something's going south. That doesn't mean that we have to micromanage all of our visitors or all of our dancers. We have to let them fail on their own. And then we help them when they need a hand. But when they don't need a hand We kind of let it keep going. I think this is actually two slides. It's a good picture, isn't it?

Which brings us to the most important part of how to engage with museum visitors and that's to respect the work that they've done to get into your lobby. Right? Yes! It's a lot of work. They found parking. They brought their kids. They spent $25. They found a museum. They talked their husband into it. Right? This is not an easy thing to do. It's hard to get people to a dance class. They need to understand how much we value them. Learning to dance, I'm not going to lie, it's kind of hard. It takes some time. Learning how to be comfortable at a museum, it's kind of hard. It takes some time. And it's our job, our honor, and our duty to take people as they are and let them know that they can't dance wrong. Alright, thank you!