The Renwick Gallery’s “Wonder” exhibit in DC inspires nothing short of love, as droves of visitors flock to the museum, actively engage with its art installations, and happily share their experiences on social media. Take a page from Renwick’s playbook to connect more deeply with your own target audience and drive engagement to new heights.
Renwick Makes Itself Irresistible to Visitors
Customer engagement, member engagement, public engagement, audience engagement. No matter what we call it, we all want the same thing, don’t we? We’re all looking for that spark, that special something that will hook our target audience, drive them to engage, and keep them coming back for more.
If anybody’s discovered the secret sauce to boosting audience engagement, it’s the folks behind the smoking-hot “Wonder” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington DC.
I visited the museum recently – along with a lot of other people – during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Despite a drizzling cold rain, people waited patiently in a long line to get into the museum. Once inside, hundreds more formed a queue that snaked at least 1.5 times around the perimeter of the Renwick’s 100-foot-long Grand Salon.
What were they waiting for? Among other things – for a chance to peek into the heart of an ancient hemlock tree, re-created on-site by artist John Grade (with the help of hundreds of volunteers).
Now, granted, the late December holidays have always been one of the Smithsonian’s busiest times of the year – with tourists and locals alike flocking in droves to visit its free museums.
But this felt like something different, something special.
Since the exhibit’s opening on November 13, 2015, people from all ages and walks of life have been inspired to share their thoughts about the meaning of “wonder” on social media, along with countless photos and videos they’ve taken of themselves and the exhibit.
How has the Renwick managed to generate such enthusiastic buzz and audience engagement?
For one thing, they asked for it.
Driving Engagement: You Gotta Ask to Get
A large sign titled “A Sense of Wonder” greets visitors as soon as they enter the museum’s front door. It reads:
“People have debated the meaning and value of wonder for more than two thousand years. It has been described as everything from the origins of our understanding of the universe…to a shock to the heart, and a surprise of the soul…[Tell] us what wonder means to you using #RenwickGallery and the museum will feature your post!”
This sign is followed in quick succession by another with a startlingly simple message:
Later, visitors encounter a third sign reminding them to share their experiences, their thoughts, their feelings on social media:
As tangible proof of the museum’s social sharing promise, the exhibition also includes an electronic sign featuring a live Instagram feed of posts that have used the gallery’s hashtag.
Transforming Spaces: “Wonder” Reimagined
By the fall of 2015, the Renwick Gallery had been closed for two years of renovations costing a cool $30 million. To celebrate its reopening, Curator-in-Charge Nicholas Bell recruited nine leading contemporary artists to participate in the newly reimagined museum’s debut exhibition.
Each artist was given free rein over a different room at the Renwick and asked to explore the notion of “wonder.” The goal: to transform the entire museum into an immersive work of art.
Using everyday, mundane materials, these artists created stunning large-scale installations that, as the Renwick website justly claims, “utterly transform spaces and engage us in the most surprising ways.”
From hundreds of thousands of index cards molded together into spindly Dr. Seuss-like peaks…
To 60 miles of polyester sewing thread strung together in luminous rainbows of color…
To a gallery decorated with intricate pink wallpaper consisting entirely of…
Exploring Meaning: “Wonder” Redefined
For those of us who find as much inspiration in the written word as in grand visuals, the exhibition even includes a series of specially-labeled signs – one in each gallery – featuring “a notable quote on wonder’s character.”
My personal favorite:
Visitors are encouraged to look for these plaques and think about their own personal definitions of “wonder,” then share their ruminations on social media.
Audience Engagement That Drives Big Results
In just a few short weeks, “Wonder” has generated an astonishing level of engagement from visitors.
Lovebirds exchange wedding vows in the Grand Salon, fashionistas proudly display their trendiest outfits in the building’s hallways, avid photographers hold “photo safaris” here, and college students take selfies among the installations instead of studying for exams.
By early January, more than 20,000 images with the hashtag #RenwickGallery had been posted to Instagram alone. As reporter Maura Judkis says in an article for the Washington Post, “Who wouldn’t want to photograph this show? Every artwork is an Instagrammer’s dream come true.”
But what tangible results have the staff at the Renwick produced along with all that feel-good enthusiasm?
“Wonder” has blown the roof off attendance records. In the years leading up to its renovation, the Renwick averaged 150,000 visitors annually. This exhibit drew over 175,000 people through its doors in its first six weeks. And the crowds just keep coming.
If you’re lucky enough to live nearby – or you’re planning a trip to Washington in the next few months – make time to add a little “Wonder” to your day. You’ll find it well worth your while. But don’t wait too long. Many of these installations will be on view at the Renwick only through early May 2016.
Even if you can’t make it to DC, you can still take a page from Renwick’s playbook to amp up your own audience engagement.
Share Your Thoughts
What’s one specific takeaway from the Renwick’s innovative approach to audience engagement that you could use to draw-in your own target audience? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on social media.
P.S. If you liked this piece, you might also like Captivate Your Audience with Brand Storytelling and How to Lead Others With Cialdini’s Weapons of Influence – Part II
About the artwork (in order of appearance above): “Middle Fork,” by John Grade; “1.8,” by Janet Echelman; “Untitled” by Tara Donovan; “Plexus A1,” by Gabriel Dawe; and “In the Midnight Garden,” by Jennifer Angus.
About the photos: Red sneakers and hearts photo by Halfpoint/Shutterstock.com. All other photography by Sarah Saunders, 2015-2016. All rights reserved. Photography of artwork in Renwick Gallery “encouraged.”
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