Museums: Inciting social action for good

Creating museum exhibitions to provoke meaningful behaviour change in visitors

Culture has always played a role in subversion, empowering activism and holding power to account. If museums want to be ‘of’ the communities they exist in, then they of course need to advocate for them.

Museums are also uniquely placed to capitalise on increasing ethical consumerism and can more easily avoid the ‘woke washing’ accusations levelled at commercial sectors. There is a moral and a financial imperative for being a force for good.

So, while simultaneously planning safe visitor journeys through collections and extra hand sanitisers, we’re also seeing museum partners wondering what they could be doing within their exhibition spaces, in a way that goes beyond awareness raising, to spark social change.

In extensive research prior to the pandemic, MHM had identified six principles for museums to follow if they wished to incite meaningful social action in their visitors. These principles are even more important in the post-Covid world.

1. Know what you want to achieve and understand what your audience expects from you

It sounds basic, but it’s vital to understand what it is you want your visitors to go away and do. Vote? Eat local? Recycle? Protest? Challenge hatred? Compost? 

It’s important also to think about where you’d like them to do it: there are options to incite behaviour change at home as well providing opportunities for action within the exhibition, such as letter writing.

Understanding visitors’ perceptions of your brand will also be crucial. What you’re asking your visitors to do will have to align with their expectations of you, otherwise they’ll just leave feeling confused.

Equally you’ll need to know and communicate your limitations – this is especially important in smaller community-focused museums who risk being seen more as a local hub than an agent of change. Only once you’ve done this can you think about content and messaging.

2. Take a stand

It’s tempting to want to cover your bases, but tempering your message so that it appeals to everyone risks you not saying anything at all. If political neutrality is a necessity for your organisation, this doesn’t preclude having any opinion. Be bold.

3. Uplift visitors with the hope and the progress

Our research has shown us that inciting social action is most likely when people see positive messages about existing steps forward.

Hope and progress show that change IS possible and that the exhibition is part of a wider movement of action: something that people can join.

While emphasising the seriousness of your cause is obviously crucial, too much doom and gloom will generate hopelessness and a sense of ‘what’s the point?’.

4. Focus on community action to make people feel positive and in control

Avoiding the pitfall of inevitability about the future is important if you want your visitors to feel empowered to make changes in their lives, or embark on some kind of activism.

It’s critical not to overwhelm visitors with so much to do that they don’t know where to begin.

We've discovered there is a sweet spot when it comes to feeling in control and hopeful about the future - and it’s in ‘community’.

If action is too focused on individual change, people just can’t see the point; but if the scale of ambition is too broad they feel overwhelmed. Those who felt that they were able to effect change in their local community tended to be most hopeful about the future.

5. Start on a high note

While it might be instinctive to start with the bad news and move on to how what we can do to challenge things, this could set the wrong tone.

Research from Social Psychologist Alison Ledgerwood shows that negative frames of mind are really challenging to come back from, meaning that even with more action-focused content later in the exhibition, a depressing start could still leave people paralysed by the overwhelming task at hand. 

Unless the exhibition content is seriously niche and needs extensive explaining, it will be important to recognise, but not dwell on, the social problem.

6. Make sure you embody the change you’re asking of others

Our final piece of advice is to ensure you’re practising what you preach. Consumers are inundated with messages of social justice from brands of every type and are savvy about sniffing out any element of perceived inauthenticity. Be the change you want to see. And mean it.

Image credit: People's History Museum, Manchester. 


As a Senior Research Executive, Laura designs, analyses and reports on a variety of research...

Lorna is a Senior Consultant and heads our USA team. She has extensive experience on both sides of...

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