Museums provide an invaluable space for members of the public to get up close to history and culture.
Those who have a passion for maintaining museums understand that public access to cultural and creative memory is crucial. We know that museums are not archaic, and that history and culture have much to teach us about the present moment… but it can sometimes be difficult to communicate this value to the general public, especially to younger generations. Museums that thrive in the 21st century understand what younger generations need from their cultural institutions.
In this blog post, we’re going to break down a handful of strategies that museums can leverage to attract younger audiences.
Though these tactics are tried and tested by museums big and small around the world, they’re especially useful for institutions that are off the beaten track. Niche museums and those outside of major city centers have a difficult time attracting visitors, and much of their business is seasonal. These institutions preserve vital information about the cultural history of their locales. It’s important not to forget about these smaller gallery spaces, who need inexpensive tactics for marketing and public engagement.
Here are a few strategies that use resources you already have (or can easily take advantage of) and won’t break the budget:
1) Collaborate With Experts To Produce A Podcast
Podcasts have been steadily on the rise in the last decade. Forty percent of Americans have listened to a podcast. The audio shows play an important part in marketing and outreach strategies, especially for museums and other cultural institutions. Many people turn to podcasts to learn something new in a niche subject area.
One great example of a podcast produced by a museum is A Piece of Work, the result of a partnership between MoMA and podcast powerhouse WNYC Studios. This podcast makes modern art more approachable through conversations with artists and art historians to explain concepts like abstraction and minimalism.
If you are thinking about creating your own podcast, there are many resources online—including this podcasting guide for small museums—that will tell you what you need to produce a high quality show. Many libraries now offer equipment for producing podcasts. If your institution does not have the staff or financial resources to produce an independent show, consider collaborating with an existing podcast. Try to involve people in your community who are passionate about history and culture and are willing to share their stories. If you have a college or university in your town, ask a professor to give an on-air talk. You could also interview artists, historians, researchers, authors or the museum director.
2) Improve Accessibility For Young Visitors
For families with young children, a major deterrent from visiting museums is the idea that many are not family-friendly. Amenities geared toward families are worth investing in and promoting to potential visitors. These amenities could include spaces for nursing mothers, kid-friendly exhibits and an atmosphere that is inviting to families, rather than clinical or stuffy.
Another major barrier to accessing museums is money. If a family is struggling to pay for essential items, a trip to the museum is not going to be a priority, especially if admission rates are high.
Consider partnering with your local library branch to create low- or no-cost access opportunities—many libraries now offer passes for local museums that families are permitted to borrow. Museums build lifelong learners, and while it is important to take in money for the upkeep of the museum, encouraging interest from children is a significant investment for their future and the future of your institution.
Kids In Museums, a UK-based initiative, has created a “manifesto” of other small changes museums can make to benefit families and children, particularly those who haven’t visited museums in the past. The proposed changes (which were suggested by children) include staff training for interacting with kids, a family-friendly cafe, bathrooms that can accommodate a stroller, and water fountains.
3) Invest In Social Media Management
Most children born after the year 2000 have never experienced a world without access to the internet. Ninety-nine percent of all students in Canada (as surveyed by the Vanier Institute of the Family) have ready access to the internet outside of school hours. A life constantly plugged in is the norm for most of these kids, and institutions need to recognize this changing reality of family life and make sure that their outreach strategy includes a strong social media presence to reach young people with information they are interested in.
Consider applying for a grant such as Young Canada Works to hire a student intern who can help you build a social media presence for your institution. If you need inspiration, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is well-known for its excellent social media presence.
The museum uses Twitter as an online gallery space, a forum to inspire discussion and debate, and a platform for curators to answer questions and give short talks. This screenshot is from the museum’s #AskACurator day on September 13, 2017, when museum curators answered questions from Twitter in a series of short videos. The museum’s Twitter account is also used to deliver updates about upcoming exhibits, visiting scholars, concerts and promotions.
4) Establish Online Galleries & Rich Content
People rely on the web to make many decisions in their lives, but when it comes to travel, the internet is an essential tool. Tourists always love visiting museums, making requisite stops at major galleries like the Louvre and the Met. However, if your institution is not automatically included on every tourist’s itinerary, it is vital that your website clearly communicate what your museum has to offer.
This can be done by developing online galleries and creating engaging content for viewers. This generates interest in your institution from visitors and shows others in the industry that your institution is progressive and focused on creating a rich experience both online and offline.
Codex provides online gallery spaces that work well for smaller institutions to showcase some of their holdings. Populating your Codex with images and other media allows you to reach those who are interested in your collection but either live far away or have accessibility challenges. Maintaining a blog (which can also be done using Codex) is another effective way to communicate what makes your institution special and what exciting projects you are working on.
5) Use Compelling Content Like GIFs & Videos
The Tate Britain in London was responsible for one of the cleverest uses of GIFs in the museum space: the 1840s GIF Party. Using Tumblr, the museum invited young people to transform selected artworks from the 1840s gallery at the museum into hilarious GIFs.
The project was a response to social media objectives designed to reach younger generations and “warm the Tate brand” to tech-savvy Tumblr users. The 1840s GIF Party was a huge success, dramatically increasing traffic to the Tate’s website and social media channels. This is a screenshot from the museum’s project evaluation report, showing each artwork’s landing page before and after the project:
The GIF party received about 600 submissions, one of which was reblogged over 100,000 times and voted one of Tumblr’s top GIFs of 2014. Submissions from the contest were featured on over 100 websites and blogs including BuzzFeed and Yahoo.
The 1840s GIF Party caught people’s attention because it was unique and imaginative. GIF creators were able to show off their technical skills while getting to know each painting, taking inspiration from the inherent movement within the artwork and turning that movement on its head. The project let the Tate reach new audiences and demonstrate that the museum is still relevant for younger generations.
Following the success of the GIF party, the Tate made digital mass-participation projects a permanent part of the museum, installing screens and stations within the museum to showcase GIFs and memes that people have created from the artwork in the gallery space.
This is a great example of a museum leveraging technology that younger audiences already know and love. Tumblr is a free website for sharing visual content with people around the world. Young people are already using Tumblr to curate their own personal art collections. If you want to connect with Gen Y and Z, don't be afraid to create campaigns that are responsive to current trends in technology and pop culture.
6) Leave Room For Imagination And Exploration In Your Guided Tours
It isn’t surprising that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (aka SFMOMA, home of the largest collection of modern art in America) recently launched one of the world’s leading guided tour apps. The museum is funded in part by the tech giants of neighbouring Silicon Valley, including Apple, and the new app is appropriately high-tech—but it doesn’t require visitors to look at their phones. Rather, the app is intended to be used with headphones, and the tour begins by encouraging visitors to put their phones in their pockets.
The app uses the museum’s Wi-Fi signals to track movement, making the tour reactive to each visitor’s interests while gently guiding them through the space. Instead of following rigid instructions on where to go, the visitor is given cue words such as “Look up at…” and “Go around this corner and you might see…” along with key concepts to think about while moving through the 170,000 square feet of gallery space.
SFMOMA hired podcasters, comedians, sportscasters and artists to record several different tour paths. The guides have personable and interesting voices, and rather than telling visitors exactly what to look at, they offer commentary like: “Come into this corner gallery and see if any of these works invite you to stop and look.” This makes the tour exploratory, playful and interactive. There is no need to look at a screen—just at the art.
If visitors stray from the path, the app begins to play ambient music, designed not to distract visitors or discourage them from wandering. WIRED’s video about the app describes it best:
“The ideal app tour is one that adapts to spontaneity and doesn’t prescribe a predetermined path"
While most museums won’t have Apple’s help (or capital) to create a cutting-edge app, the lessons from SFMOMA’s app can be applied to any kind of museum tour, whether in the form of an app or a paper brochure. Make sure your museum’s guided tours leave room for the visitor to wander and come to their own conclusions, even while they learn the most essential information about your collections.
7) Stand Out And Take Risks With Quirky Exhibits
Exhibits that respond to universal, timeless experiences are guaranteed to draw interest. While every person and every object has a story, it is the museum’s job to tell these stories in a way that appeals to the general public.
Established in 2016, The Museum of Broken Relationships has already attracted thousands of visitors and lots of media attention. The museum’s collection is made up of seemingly random donated objects. The objects come from all over the world, and each one has a story about the person who saved the object and why it symbolizes their failed relationship.
The museum’s motley assortment of mundane and off-the-wall objects illustrates the complexities of love and heartbreak, offers a tangible picture of letting things go, and prompts visitors to think about the material objects they hold onto in memory of past heartbreaks.
This video from Al Jazeera includes a short interview with museum director Alexis Hyde and examples of the strange objects housed in the museum:
The museum’s virtual collection is given equal prominence, and each anonymous contribution includes a picture of the object, a small story about what it represents, and a mapped pin showing where the object came from.
You don’t have to make a whole museum dedicated to a quirky concept. For many museums, this would look like creating an exhibit which focuses on a particularly weird part of history, or a collection of art which stands out from the rest. Creative and quirky exhibits work well on both a large scale and a small scale, and they are a great way of appealing to younger audiences.
These seven ideas are just a few of the ways you can leverage technology and creativity to make the museum experience more appealing to younger audiences. While not all of these strategies might be feasible for your particular institution, it’s worth taking a critical eye to your marketing strategy to look for opportunities you may be missing.
Don’t allow yourself to become victim to the status quo. Embrace the unknown. Embrace risk. Embrace innovation! And if you’re interested in learning more about ways to do exactly that, the team here at Codex would love to chat. Let us know what initiatives you have launched to attract younger audiences, and find out how our online galleries can help you reach new visitors.