Take risks & tell great stories: top learning outcomes from CTM16!


“Sometimes we forget how amazing the places we work at are, because we’re just getting on with the day job.” (Gordon Montgomery, Art Institute of Chicago)

Hello, it’s Jenni here! If you follow Museum140 on Twitter, you’ll probably have noticed that I was attending the Communicating the Museum conference (CTM16) here in Berlin last week as a roving reporter. The conference was organised by Agenda, and we convened at the Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum. Anyway, after three full-on days, full of interesting presentations and workshops, I’ve found a moment to sort my notes and pull together the top learning outcomes that I took away with me from the conference. There were so many themes and ideas, which resonated across various speakers, that I’ve decided to summarise them rather than single out any individuals – though I have included some of my favourite quotes too, which are attributed to specific speakers.




As to be expected from a conference called ‘Communicating the Museum’, communication was a red thread that ran through all the presentations and workshops. The importance of open communication from the start of any engagement – whether with audiences, partners or staff – was highlighted, as was the need for dialogue, i.e. not just sending out a message but listening to what your opposite has to say in return. Several speakers also acknowledged the challenges of opening up a dialogue with different target groups, as not all audiences are the same, and have different interests and needs.

Risk Taking

Taking risks is critical to creating change!” (Jesse Ringham, Tate)

Another red thread, that ran through the conference, was museums allowing themselves to take risks. To break the rules and be unconventional. Being able to stay flexible, adapt and try new things is critical in staying relevant to museum audiences. And it can also be a way of reaching new audiences, such as working with media partners outside your usual scope – as in the example from Kunsthalle Bremen, who worked with beauty magazines for an exhibition about Picasso and his museum Sylvette. 


“Stories assemble words in to worlds!” (Cecilia Martin, Lava Lab & Naresh Ramchandani, Pentagram)

Museums are all about telling stories. Whether they are stories about art, or science, or history, it all comes back to being able to tell a great story that visitors want to engage with. Tips for telling a great stories included being authentic, being personal, being sharp and resonating. And when pitching a story to the media, a good measure of whether it’s something the media would be interested in, is to ask whether it’s something you would want to read yourself. If not, don’t bother!



Partners and partnerships were another recurring theme across the three days, from trusting partners to treating them as equals not as vendors. The importance of delivering a good and inspiring – but not too constricting – brief at the start of any partnership work with an agency was mentioned, as was that fact that partnerships in a socially engaged museum would be about working together, not in competition.

Audience Needs

“If you want to connect with people, you need to give them space. Both physical and mental.” (Nathalie Bondil, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

The ultimate goal of any museum, is to attract audiences. But it’s important to not only think of numbers when getting people through the door, but also about people’s needs. Otherwise at best they won’t come again, at worst they won’t come at all. Making sure your brand works for the audiences you want is a crucial first step. Segmentation is a topic, that popped up quite a few times in relation to this. For example, if you have more than one target audience, try targeting just one segment and getting it right, then move on to the next segment. And we were reminded, that if we want someone to take action, we usually have to engage with them first – whether that’s a new visitor you want to try to convince to visit your museum, or an existing visitor you are e.g. wanting to ask to donate to a project.


And, finally, several presentations highlighted how important it is for museums to involve their staff in both developing and delivering a compelling brand, with visitor services/front of house staff in particular being mentioned. Too often they get thought of as little more than gallery attendants, when in fact they are often the ones who know a museum’s audience best as they, more than anyone else, are the ones who engage with them on a daily basis.



Since social media is at the heart of Museum140, I also wanted to include a short list of tips from Rebecca Taylor of Fitz & Co, on how to make the most of Instagram:

  • Content is King! Users want content that informs, educates, solves problems and/or entertains.

  • Your goal is to elicit emotion from your viewers!

  • Don’t be afraid to show a sense of humour (in your IG captions).

  • Don’t ignore your followers – engage your community!

  • If you can’t react to all user comments etc just do your best and don’t overreact to negative comments.

  • Discover and engage your influencers: find the influencer who genuinely loves you and befriend them!



And finally, there were two other things I wanted to highlight. The first is the Berlin’s Multaka project (see above), in which Syrian and Iraqui refugees have been involved in giving tours, to make cultural connections between Germany and their own. This article from the Guardian gives some more information about it in English: “Berlin museums’ refugee guide scheme fosters meeting of minds”

The other is the app Smartify, available for both iOS and Android. It’s basically Shazam for art – you hold your phone up to an artwork, and it instantly scans it and gives you information about it. It’s really amazing! So far it includes museums in London, with Amsterdam next on the list, but any museum which already has the relevant information available digitally online can contact Smartify to have their content added! So, what are you waiting for!


Many thanks to both Agenda and the Deutsches Historisches Museum for organising and hosting such an inspiring conference. Did I mention the evening receptions? My highlight was the organ concert and tour of the dome at Berlin Cathedral. Just magical! Please note that I was invited by Agenda to attend the conference and report about it live on Twitter and here on the blog, in exchange for a conference ticket. However, all opinions are entirely my own. 


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