Over the last few years we’ve seen the cultural sector increasingly embrace difficult conversations. (For example, just at the end of last year Museums Galleries Scotland launched a consultation on Museums, Slavery and the Empire.)

The world is changing and we need to change with it. Perhaps we also want to lead the way, and increasingly, we’ve seen audiences desire for museums not to be neutral but to tackle challenging topics head on: whether it’s race, gender, colonialism or cultural appropriation or something else.

From our work with Bristol Beacon, (supporting their community consultation around their name change) or evaluating audience reactions to Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance, we’re no strangers to consulting on sensitive or complicated topics.

So, if you have a difficult subject to broach with your audience, here are five pieces of friendly advice from our teams:

1. Take the time to know why this issue is important to you

At MHM we often talk about being vision-led and audience focused. This is crucial when embarking on difficult conversations.

Before you wade in to an open discussion on a potentially challenging topic, take the time to reflect internally on what you, as an organization believe. How does this issue fit in to your vision, values and the impact you want to have? 

Cultural institutions can educate and empower and to do that they need to have a point of view. Audience consultation isn’t necessarily about changing what you trying to do, but about discovering how to do it in a way that engages people.

2. Proactively seek out a range of perspectives

Knowing the impact you want to have and being confident in your beliefs is a vital first step. But then be prepared to listen and learn from a range of different perspectives and be open to having your initial view changed. 

Providing a space for people to share their views is important but we recommend taking it a step further. Seek out a range of diverse perspectives from all kinds of audiences and stakeholders – peers, experts, donors, your community, current audiences and those you are currently not reaching at all.

Don’t rely on people putting themselves forward to be part of the conversation – actively invite input from a range of voices.

3. Think about what you’re asking for, and how: one size does not fit all

Consulting with a diverse range of ‘audiences’ means speaking to people with whom you have different kinds of relationships.

Think carefully about what you are asking from them and how you are asking it, in the context of the specific relationship – with you and with the topic at hand.

How much time is it reasonable to ask them to invest? Does it need to be anonymous and private or open and transparent? Will it be a complicated and nuanced conversation? Do we need to consider their safety? Do we need to earn their trust before we ask anything of them? Do we need to go and find them where they are, rather than expecting them to come to us?

4. Be transparent about your goals, and what is in your gift to change

Be clear with anyone involved in consultation what you hope to get from it, why it is important to you and how you plan to use the results.

But also be honest about any limitations – what can and can’t be changed, what might be easy and what might take more time.  Transparency on what you will do with the findings, what decisions you are making is a golden rule for ethical market research generally because it shows you are asking for input in good faith, and it helps to build trust.

5. Embrace the opportunity. Be open. Be excited.

It’s natural to feel fear around difficult conversations, particularly when the loudest voices can often be the most negative, and in a time of social media, nuanced thoughtful conversations can often be overshadowed.

But engaging in dialogue with audiences is an opportunity that can take you to unexpected places and really be a catalyst for the kinds of impacts you want to have. Push through the discomfort and embrace the opportunity, be excited about what you might learn and the action you can take because of it.

It’s what you’re here for, after all. 

Image: Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance