October 2010: Attracting a Vietnamese Audience
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
2005 Museums for America
Two girls play and learn in the Vietnamese Round Boat at Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose.
Director of Education and Programs
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
408-298-5437, ext. 280
What city is home to more people of Vietnamese origin than any city outside Vietnam? It’s San Jose, California, where the Vietnamese community is the city’s fastest growing population — now comprising 11 percent of San Jose’s one million people.
Because of this fact, the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose knew that in order to meet its long-range goal of increasing overall attendance by 15 percent — in a way reflective of local demographics — it would have to attract more visitors of Vietnamese descent.
The museum had a model to copy, because in the early 2000s it completed a successful program to boost its number of Latino visitors by 20 percent.
"We had a growing awareness of the increasing Vietnamese population and the fact that our museum visitorship demographics were not matching the city’s demographics. And we wanted to try to change that," said Jenni Martin, Director of Education and Programs at the museum.
Martin and her colleagues developed the Vietnamese Audience Development Initiative (VADI) to increase Vietnamese visitorship by 20 percent over a five-year period, using strategies and lessons learned from the Latino initiative.
In 2005, the museum received a three-year, $150,000 Museums for America grant from IMLS for the project.
Getting to Know the Community
VADI’s purpose was to establish research from which to validate strategies and measure the museum’s success in increasing annual attendance with visitors from the local Vietnamese population.
The museum approached the project in three phases: Community assessment and relationship building; development of exhibit, program, event, marketing, and governance strategies; and full-scale implementation of these strategies.
In the first phase, the museum took a multi-pronged approach to getting to know the community and its needs. Museum staff recruited a Vietnamese Advisory Committee, hired a Vietnamese communications consultant, hosted focus groups, and developed a museum survey printed in both English and Vietnamese.
The consultant provided entrée to local Vietnamese community leaders, who in turn facilitated other introductions.
To encourage families to complete the written survey, the museum offered a VIP program: Very Important People for our Vietnamese Initiative Project. Participating families received free admission to the museum. When they returned the completed survey, they received a Family Fun Pass, which provided privileges such as two free family visits and coupons for free parking.
During the second phase of the project, the museum displayed three exhibits relevant to Vietnamese culture, including "Dragons & Fairies: Folktales from Vietnam" from the Houston Children’s Museum. The museum also designed trilingual signage in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese for the permanent "Secrets of Circles" exhibit.
The VADI project also featured educational programs, "Family Circle Nights" at schools, and parent/child workshops; Vietnamese performers at the summer music festival; and visual arts activities for children ages 4 and above, incorporating Vietnamese culture, such as lantern making and scroll printing.
The museum created one big annual event, "Children of the Dragon," a weekend festival in April to share Vietnamese culture with the community. The festival included a Vietnamese marketplace, where visitors could sample Vietnamese jackfruit and learn how to fold traditional rice cakes, and an arts and crafts area, where visitors could decorate a scroll and make block prints.
To publicize the VADI activities, the museum enlisted support from Vietnamese radio and print media. The museum also translated its literature and marketing materials into Vietnamese.
VADI also received a $25,000 sponsorship from Target Stores, which enabled the printing of 10,000 bilingual fliers promoting "Children of the Dragon."
Drawing More Vietnamese Visitors
The VADI strategies resulted in higher participation in the museum by Vietnamese-descent families, particularly among second-generation families.
Some 255,000 total visitors (of all backgrounds) benefited from the grant project; 113,740 people attended the "Dragons & Fairies" exhibit; 2,750 children and adults participated in the workshops, "Family Circle Nights," and arts programs; and 113 families signed up for the VIP program.
The "Children of the Dragon" weekend festival was very successful, with attendance rising 32 percent during its second year, from 2,847 visitors in 2007 to 3,757 in 2008. Attendance jumped even higher in 2009, even though the museum charged admission for the first time.
Response to the festival shows how the project has achieved its goal of serving as a bridge between the two worlds of Vietnam and Vietnamese-American communities.
"We had these Girl Scout troop leaders who came in their traditional ao dai, which is this beautiful Vietnamese dress — pants, actually — and they came in and they saw the market and they were so excited they were just walking around, all getting their photos taken in all these places within the market. And it was wonderful," said Martin. "And then bringing their children over and pointing out, because we had different fruits and vegetables — plastic ones — but also the tasting of a particular fruit called the jackfruit."
One of the project’s most significant results was the knowledge museum staff gained over the three years.
"The institutional process of self-reflection and learning, where we were able to identify and try out these strategies and learn along the way about what was effective and what wasn’t and about some of nuances of the Vietnamese community," was very valuable, said Martin.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
One of the things the museum staff learned early on was that the Vietnamese community was not unified behind one set of leaders.
"There were a number of different groups and we needed to navigate those political waters carefully," said Martin.
The split was generational, related to when people had left Vietnam.
"Some members of the community who had emigrated around 1975 were very distrustful of the communist government and of current relations with Vietnam today," explained Martin. "So there’s one group that was very distrustful of that, and another group who has begun reaching out to Vietnam, is traveling to Vietnam, you know wants to look at American-Vietnamese relations now from a commerce point of view, a tourism point of view."
Tiny details could potentially alienate one of the groups, as the museum learned when hosting a traveling exhibit. A video in the exhibit showed a parade in Saigon with some communist flags waving.
"The executive director was getting a number calls from these different leaders who were saying that there was concern that we were aligning ourselves with the communist group," said Martin.
The museum director reassured community leaders and the Advisory Committee that no favoritism was intended.
Another lesson learned was that the cost of museum admission and parking was an issue for many Vietnamese families. Museum staff also learned that they approach education differently than Vietnamese families do.
"We had always made a big deal of sending a message about fun and learning together. And we learned that that message might be one that didn’t speak as strongly to the Vietnamese community, that in fact there’s a high value on learning as something that’s very serious and also something that parents aren’t always involved in. That the realm of learning is for the teacher and the school," said Martin.
Second Grant Allows Project to Continue
After the grant ended in September 2008, the museum continued many VADI activities including the annual festival.
In 2009, the museum received a second $150,000 IMLS grant for the VADI project. Going forward, the museum will hire a Vietnamese staff person who is bilingual and bicultural, and also work to differentiate the outreach to first-generation and second-generation Vietnamese.
First-generation folks see the museum as a way to connect to things Vietnamese in San Jose and a place to teach their children about their homeland. The second-generation folks, who came to the United States as children and grew up here, feel the museum’s value is in its diverse audience, which helps teach their kids about other cultures.
"We want with our next grant for this project to really look at how should we be investing in those two different generations and what does that mean in terms of the messaging that we’re doing, in terms of the grassroots work that we’re doing, in terms of the large audience development," said Martin.