The Family Display: A spatial analysis of family practices at Tate
Date: 4 February 2019
University of Exeter
PhD in Management Studies
Publicly-funded museums in the UK face the dual challenge of maintaining meaningful relationships with their existing visitors and establishing effective relationships with new audiences. Museums perceive family audiences as important because engaging with them can provide immediate and future impact. Since families with children tend ...
Publicly-funded museums in the UK face the dual challenge of maintaining meaningful relationships with their existing visitors and establishing effective relationships with new audiences. Museums perceive family audiences as important because engaging with them can provide immediate and future impact. Since families with children tend to be understood as ‘learning’ audiences, they offer a way for publicly-funded museums to demonstrate their worth to society through the provision of education. Furthermore, successful engagement with families with children is perceived as a way to cultivate enduring, resilient and life-long relationships with audiences who could potentially support the future viability and financial sustainability of museums. Families, therefore, are a museum audience with high strategic value. However, there is a lack of research to support what experiencing museums means to families. Most existing research in this area analyses family experiences of museums at the level of individual episodes within a visit. That is, rather than focusing on the lives of family visitors and how they connect to the museum, analysis focuses on learning events or on the identity-related needs of families during their museum visit. The under-theorization of family in the context of museums is particularly problematic because family audiences are perceived by museums as having bespoke needs that are different from those of other museum audiences. This failure to account for the pluralities of both families and museums makes it difficult to develop authentic understandings of family museum engagement. In this thesis, these issues are examined through the framework of Tate, a leading international art museum. The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions state that Tate is the most-visited publicly-funded cultural institution in the UK and is recognised as a sector leader in terms of its curatorial practices and additional income generation methods. However, family audiences are significantly under-represented at Tate, both as a proportion of the institution’s overall visitor base and when compared to similar museums. This means that Tate’s challenge to retain, attract and engage family audiences is particularly pressing, thus providing an acute case with intrinsic and instrumental value. To address the challenge of increasing and improving family museum engagement, this thesis develops deeper and wider understandings of family experiences of museums by special reference to Tate as a leading international museum. This thesis takes a spatial ethnographic approach to understanding how families experience museums in order to attend to the complexities and multiple realities of family life and museums. Thus, this is the first study to examine family audiences in the particular context of the art museum, itself an under-represented context in museum studies, at the level of family practices. This extends the methodological tradition of ethnographic research in museums by making allowances for material and embodied perspectives, in addition to historical-political and individual perspectives. Data was generated across the Tate Estate between November 2014 and June 2017 and was analysed iteratively in line with the ethnographic approach to research. There are two sets of significant findings. The first set of findings illustrate the sophisticated way that ‘family’ is produced and utilised by Tate as both an ordering social concept and a flexible set of practices. As well as extending how museum audiences can be understood, these findings raise theoretical questions around family and how it is used within the public management and funding frameworks that operate in museums. Additionally, this first set of findings informs the second, since it provides a contextually relevant working definition of the term ‘family’. The second set of findings demonstrate how family experiences of Tate relate to the practices of family, both as private practices between family members and as a public practices made available to wider social circles. These findings have empirical, practical and political implications for Tate and the museum sector, particularly concerning the management of non-traditional museum spaces, intergenerational learning and ambitions for authentic inclusivity within museum engagement.
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