Building a fun museum: how do I start?

August, 10, 2018

Silvia Filippini-Fantoni from the North Carolina Museum of Art shares her insights


Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, who spoke at Communicating the Museum Chicago last September, joined the North Carolina Museum of Art a little less than two years ago. As the Director of Programs and Audience Engagement, she oversees the education, interpretation and public program teams. She shares her thoughts about creating a more fun museum: it all starts with internal organizational changes.


Adopt a holistic view


The department Silvia Filippini-Fantoni leads today did not exist prior to her arrival. “There were eight different departments for programming,” she explains, “and each one of them was sort of doing its own thing.” As a consequence, there was a lot of overlapping between programs and events which ended up competing against each other for the public’s attention. “Looking at it holistically was a huge change,” says Silvia. If your institution also has many different departments all managing their own public programs and defining for themselves what “fun” is, the first necessary step might be to create one single dedicated department to oversee public programs. This can help strengthen and hone the vision and identity being spread via your public programs.


Make “fun” part of your strategy and philosophy


Based on her institution’s new strategic plan, which highlighted the necessity to diversify the age range of their audience, Silvia and her team developed a philosophy for their department. “We devised an engagement framework that we use to inform all our planning decisions; one of the main strategies of this framework is ‘play’,” Silvia explains. “We aim to create public programs that are fun and playful; but we are also doing our best to apply this strategy to the interpretation and educational activities we offer,” she adds. Silvia’s next goal would be to have this philosophy and framework shared within the entire institution. Making “fun” part of your museum’s philosophy — and strategic planning — will encourage your staff to think differently and to be a proactive force.


Communicate with your audience


Silvia and her team organized various focus groups with members, non-members, visitors and non-visitors. Based on the feedback from those sessions, they have increased events including a social component such as music, food, and informal face-to-face interactions while decreasing more “academic” or “heavy-lecture” formats. “When people are having fun, they are more open and receptive to learning new concepts,” Silvia points out, “and sometimes there is no new concept to learn, sometimes it’s just about creating good memories for people, in which art plays a role.” Surveying your audience about their interests might seem obvious yet it remains an often overlooked step in the public programming design process. Not only do you have to be a good listener, you also need to show some patience. “You need to be aware that the seeds you are planting now won’t reap results before at least another year,” says Silvia. She emphasizes how crucial it is to keep the conversation and feedback going with your audience in the meantime.


Try new things


Silvia also stresses the importance of experimentation — a topic she discussed at CTM  Chicago. “We experiment and play around with our social events: we have a few parties a year with outdoor screenings for which we’ll occasionally ask people to dress up; participate in trivia, and many more activities.”

For their immersive exhibition You Are Here, Silvia and her team organized an all-nighter for the opening night. It included a silent disco, artmaking activities, tarot card readings, comedians and games. “It was really successful: there were only people under 45 in sight, which is exactly the audience we were targeting for this event!” she exclaims. Bringing more fun into the museum implies shifting our perspectives. As we recently mentioned in a previous interview, this does not necessarily mean loosing sight of our institutions’ values or core missions.

Silvia Filippini-Fantoni will take part in the “Transforming the museum experience” panel during our Communicating the Museum conference in Chicago next month. Beyond sharing her own experiences and discussing the challenges she has faced, she is curious to know how other museum professionals have approached play in their organizations, how they have responded to eventual push back, and how they have managed to keep their staff motivated in the process. Feel free to comment on this article with your own answers.

Last but not least, if you wish to start a conversation with Silvia during the conference, it might be helpful to know that she is a big tennis fan; as she put it: “Anyone who is a fan of Roger Federer is a friend of mine.”