In order to be sustainable, museums must reach a broad audience. According to Ron Crouch’s article, entitled “Rules for a New Demographic Ballgame”, America’s museum audience is quickly changing. Within the non-Hispanic white population, younger generations are getting progressively smaller because people are having fewer children, yet minority group populations are stable or rising, especially in the younger age groups.
What does this mean for museum audiences? Is there a need to senior-ize exhibits? In my opinion, the answer is a loud no. Instead, there’s more of a need to survey both museum and non-museum audiences, and see what they want. But here’s the problem: with the constantly growing diversification of the American population, there are more groups of people to please and involve in the museum setting. To involve as many people and groups as possible in museums, people must feel that their voices are heard.
Involving the greater public in the museum decision-making process is integral to cultivating new interest in a museum, but the question of when to stop is a difficult one. How many different groups need to be represented? If the museum is situated in an incredibly diverse area, must a representative of every group be included in decision-making?
This question is especially pertinent when dealing with small museums, or museums with a very specialized collection. Take the Naval War College Museum for example. The museum is located on a naval base, and visitors must request security clearance 24 hours in advance. This, along with the fact that the museum is located on the NWC campus, somewhat limits its audience. Perhaps by having more community members involved in exhibit development, there would be higher attendance at gallery openings and museum events, but at the end of the day, the museum’s collection is still quite specialized, and the topics presented may simply not appeal to everyone.
What should museums do in situations like this? In AAM’s report Excellence and Equity, the idea of collaborative efforts is a recurring theme–the question with the NWC Museum though is who to collaborate with. Should museums with specialized content collaborate with people who aren’t interested, or with the people who are? I think both. It’s always possible to reach and involve new audiences, and to manipulate exhibits and programs in a way that present the history of an object while also placing it in a larger context that may interest more people. At a place like the Naval War College Museum, this could maybe mean getting beyond visitors with a military interest, and instead presenting something about the prevention of war.
Audience is a huge issue to tackle in one blog post. In the broad scope of things, I think in order to remain sustainable institutions, museums need to understand the people who aren’t that interested in them, understand why, and try to cater, at least occasionally and publicly, to those groups.For this post, I consulted: Excellence and Equity (American Association of Museums, 1992). Ron Crouch, “Rules for a New Demographic Ballgame,” Museum News, June 2004. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). Thanks also to John Pentangelo