Re-Examining The Role Of Museums In The Digital Age: MIM Director Weighs In

6 min read

Brian Dredla, Director of Education and Public Programs at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) discusses what museums are doing to draw and entertain visitors and what they can do to plan for sustainability — and how digital technology fits into the equation. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted all the players in the cultural world, it has never been more important for museums to know their “customers” and build their loyalty. It’s no longer enough for museums to serve as monuments of conservation, curation, and stewardship of art collections – they now have to re-examine their mission considering new possibilities and figuring out how digital connections can further their mission. In addition, to remain sustainable into the future, museums must be freshly relevant and engaging to every new generation. Tremendous opportunities are, therefore, to be seized.

One thing still holds true, however. The value of museums will always center on direct experience. Being up close and personal with artifacts you can look at and, in some cases, touch is a distinctly different and more powerful experience than viewing content online. In a recent report by The Art Newspaper, while attendance dropped by 77 percent globally during 2020, the road to recovery has begun. In 2021, the top 100 institutions in the world had a combined total of 71 million visitors compared with 54 million in 2020. So it’s safe to say that no amount of digital technology will ever replace real life.

I spoke with Brian Dredla, Director of Education and Public Programs at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) based in Phoenix, Arizona to learn how museums of today are attracting and engaging visitors and what sustainability looks like in a world of art conservation.

I wanted to start by asking, “What are the key strategies you use to engage and entertain consumers?”

“The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) was created to celebrate music and culture in a fun and friendly environment. The MIM experience includes hundreds of exhibits highlighting music and cultures from all over the world, as well as exhibits dedicated to celebrity artists, famous instrument manufacturers, and musical genres. Exhibits include vibrant videos showing musical instruments in performance contexts, with audio delivered through a user-friendly headset system by Sennheiser (called guidePORT). The entire MIM team and volunteer team is committed to delivering an on-brand experience that prioritizes the guest.

One strategy we use to ensure that the MIM brand consistently delights guests and exceeds expectations is a team-wide brand ambassador program, in which team members take on the role of a guest and document successes and actionable opportunities for improvement. (Think a secret shopper, but in a museum.) Other strategies include guest experience training and an overall approach to programming intended to capture the universal appeal of music. One physical space in the building that really captures the spirit of MIM and exemplifies how guests are engaged and entertained is the Experience Gallery. In this hands-on gallery, guests can play musical instruments from all over the world. It’s incredible to watch guests of all ages and all levels of musical skill and training discover new sounds and come together to make spontaneous music,” said Brian Dredla.

It’s no surprise that museums are turning to new technologies and experiences to connect with new audiences, retain current visitors, and boost the overall audience. This can only mean that the threshold for capturing a consumer’s attention increases as time goes on. While museums will always stand out as advocates of culture and knowledge, the most influential institutions will continue to evolve with new and engaging strategies. And that’s something the Musical Instrument Museum is keeping in mind. So how have their strategies changed?

“Many people don’t have a strong reference point for a museum focused on musical instruments. We still hear “I had no idea what to expect!” From guests as they stand in awe of MIM’s vast galleries and dynamic exhibits. Word of mouth has helped build MIM’s reputation over the years, but the team has also prioritized tactics that help educate and excite guests about the experience before they visit.”

Brian continued with, “These tactics include the use of social media to generate interest for time-bound programs and events, concert previews to offer insights into upcoming performances in the MIM Music Theater, and various virtual tours designed either for MIM’s YouTube channel or for K–12 students as part of our educational programming. Other strategies have grown out of desires to engage specific audiences. For example, MIM partnered with Pal Experiences, an organization promoting inclusion and accessibility, to guide parents of children with autism and other developmental disabilities through a typical visit and reduce anxiety about going to an unfamiliar public space.”

In recent years, the “green museum” concept has gained momentum. Many of these establishments use their collections to produce events, exhibitions, and other programming to educate visitors about the environment. So, what does that sustainability plan look like for MIM, and how can other brands learn from that?

Brian said, “For an arts and culture organization like MIM, a key aspect of sustainability is the successful cultivation of new generations of guests. MIM has diversified educational offerings to capture music’s educational and entertainment power for guests of any age. Programming starts with early childhood music and movement classes and progresses through offerings for senior citizens. MIM places a lot of focus on programming for children and families, knowing that children who experience MIM – perhaps on a school field trip – may want to visit again with parents and caregivers.

Outside of school field trips, children can enroll in a variety of MIMkids classes that allow for deeper engagement and growth of skills that include cognitive and motor development in early childhood and cultural appreciation and public speaking in adolescence. Scholar talks and culturally immersive Signature Events tap into adult interests. MIM also offers programs for senior citizens, including those living with memory loss. This strong educational programming not only attracts new guests and promotes continued engagement with MIM over an extended period of time; it also drives contributed revenue and helps to fund the operations of the museum into the future. MIM also invests in the growth and development of team talent, recognizing that critical thinking and innovation are needed to help any organization survive the various challenges of today’s business world. MIM leadership has found ways to blend the nonprofit environment with methodologies most often associated with the for-profit world, such as the application of Lean Six Sigma for projects involving process improvement and increased efficiencies.”

Museums work to create a range of positive, stimulating experiences for audiences throughout their visit and everything that comes along with that idea, including understanding pre- and post-visit experiences and how to ensure visitors come back again. For the MIM, that means a commitment to their visitors and a focus on overall guest experiences across the institutions. Of course, this rings true for all nonprofit or for – profit brands. So how can MIM’s consumer engagement approach as a nonprofit inspire that of a private organization?

“Consumer engagement at MIM is always rooted in our mission, which reads: The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) enriches our world by collecting, preserving, and making accessible an astonishing variety of musical instruments and performance videos from every country in the world. MIM offers guests a welcoming and fun experience, incomparable interactive technology, dynamic programming, and exceptional musical performances. In addition, MIM fosters appreciation of the world’s diverse cultures by showing how we innovate, adapt, and learn from each other to create music – the language of the soul.

Programming at MIM is designed to bring the benefits of music to our consumers in a way that improves well-being and highlights our shared humanity. MIM’s founder, Bob Ulrich, had the foresight to create a book that is shared with team members and volunteer team members that outlines MIM’s core business and values and links daily activities and programmatic offerings to our mission. The book serves as a guide for future team members, senior leaders, and board members to avoid the slippery slope of mission draft and ensure that MIM remains focused on and committed to delivering the experience that has been wowing guests since 2010.

For those in the for-profit sector, MIM is an example of a nonprofit with a strong brand identity that generates consumer loyalty. This approach has resulted in numerous awards and accolades and top rankings across various lists of things to do in Phoenix. MIM even ranks among the top museums in the United States on TripAdvisor, a testament to the high-quality, mission-based work that has built the MIM brand and continues to drive guest engagement,” concluded Brian.

Ultimately, being audience-led gives museums and other cultural organizations the opportunity to focus their attention on the most critical aspects of what they do, creating a clear vision for improvement and growth.


This article was written by Jeff Fromm from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to

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John Fromm