Optimizing the impact of exhibition planning

Mapping to strategic objectives

For museums everywhere, the need to think strategically about upcoming exhibitions has never been more acute. 

While the reopening of cultural venues presents opportunities – to grow and diversify audiences, generate income, deepen relationships and of course, serve your organization’s cause or mission – knowing how individual exhibitions will contribute to those goals can be more challenging. 

But this insight can help you in many ways: setting targets, identifying gaps and choosing how to invest resources.

Introducing MHM’s strategic exhibition map

For many years, we’ve worked with museums to predict how their exhibition programmes will support their wider organizational objectives.

We have developed highly effective methods of formative audience evaluation to test existing and potential audiences’ responses to upcoming exhibitions. 

By mapping these responses against a number of key criteria, we can offer clients a strategic exhibition map, which illustrates the ‘role’ each exhibition will perform for the organization.

The criteria we use are:  

  1. Mass appeal: Does the exhibition have the potential to appeal across a wide range of current attenders (for example, across ages, knowledge levels and interests)?
  2. Reaching new audiences: Could the exhibition help to reach those who don’t yet attend?
  3. Diverse audiences: Does the exhibition appeal to a diverse range of visitors (whether this be increasing diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic background)
  4. Increasing brand affinity: Could the exhibition have the potential to increase understanding of the organisation’s brand, or allow audiences to connect more deeply with the organization?
  5. Servicing specialists: Does the exhibition satisfy those with specialist knowledge of a particular subject? Or those looking to really deepen knowledge?
  6. Satisfying general audience: Does the exhibition appeal to those with a general interest who attend relatively regularly?
  7. Surcharge power: Is there scope to charge an additional fee for the exhibition?

Our clients can then choose to focus on a strategy which aligns with their immediate priorities or try to tick off as many of the objectives as possible over the course of several exhibitions.

Putting the strategy into practice: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

We put the strategic exhibition map to good use in our recent work with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Museum had three very different upcoming exhibitions planned and wanted to explore the potential audiences for each. 

Using a formative testing survey, sent out both to the Museum’s current visitors and to potential visitors using social media advertising, we were able to explore the attitudes and opinions of a range of audience groups. This allowed us to build up a comprehensive visitor profile for each exhibition.

The resulting strategic exhibition map ensured the Museum could feel confident in its programme, and gain a deeper understanding of how to market each exhibition to the target audience.

The diagram below shows the differing impacts of three potential exhibitions:

Exhibition 1 was a clear ‘home run’ with their existing general audience and would likely generate income but was less likely to convert new audiences. 

Exhibition 2 had broad, wide appeal to new and existing audiences and encouraged people to feel warmly about the brand. 

Exhibition 3 sparked strong interest with specialists and with different, more diverse audiences but on a smaller overall scale. 

Together, the Museum of Fine Arts was reassured the exhibitions could deliver on multiple objectives.

Making it work for you

You may find our strategic map useful when planning upcoming exhibitions. How do the exhibitions you currently have planned complement each other? Do they serve different purposes? How should you prioritise your resources to reach the right audiences?

If you’d like to talk about how we could support you with future formative exhibition testing, please get in touch with: zoe.crisp@mhminsight.com

Main image: Boston Museum of Fine Arts, creator Werner Kunz


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

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