Museums DO Suck [For Some People]

In light of the recent discussion about the ‘suckiness’ of museums for teenagers and the response from the museum community I think we should take a minute to talk about the audience groups that are not getting the most out of their museum visits. Teenagers. Latinos. Low-Income Families. The list goes on.

A recent conversation with Allison Jessing at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum brought up the point that audiences are shifting. Visitors are getting older and dying. If we don’t appeal to wider communities and the younger generation like the friends of Howard Hwang (Why Museums Suck), what will be left of our institutions in the coming years?

Many museum people are saying that interactive, participatory exhibits are the answer. In fact, one of the only positive things that Howard Hwang writes about is that the Skirball Cultural Center “had…various multimedia that were very pleasing to the eyes.” Does he mean that he interacted with some sort of media while he was there? I hope so.
But we all know we’ve seen some terrible interactive elements in museums (just think of that broken down touchscreen). Here’s what I’ve learned about how to best engage diverse audiences with interactive elements:

-Give visitors social experiences with their involvement
-Don’t pressure visitors into participating in a certain way
-Give them some structure, but not too many confines
-Break down the barriers; include multiple languages
-Make sure visitors know how and when their information will be used

Will these things help engage the people that think museums suck? What others need to be added?

-Liz Congdon

_______________________________________
Interview with Allison Jessing, Auditorum Programs Manager at the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, November 7, 2012

John Falk, The Museum Visitor Experience: Who Visits, Why and to What Effect, in Reinventing the Museum edited by Gail Anderson (Lanham, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Altamira Press, 2012).

Nina Simon, Principles of Participation (Museum 2.0, 2010)

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About lizcongdon

Liz is a student at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, excited about interacting with the museum community. She has special interests in education, audience, management and art.
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16 Responses to Museums DO Suck [For Some People]

  1. Ganskop says:

    Liz – Thanks for those fascinating articles! I hadn’t heard about the “Why Museums Suck” blogpost, and I really appreciated reading it. Reading a negative, but passionate post from a teenager is an opportunity to learn something and make positive changes. It sounds like Howard does not feel like those museums apply to him or his life. One thing I have seen several small museums do to engage teenagers is let them participate in an exhibit and then invite them to come for opening night. The Museum of Wayne County History just opened their student photo exhibit “time” http://www.waynehistory.org/eventsopportunities.html. When I visited the Western Heritage Center this summer, they had an exhibit of important local women that a high school class had interviewed and a summary of the interview and a photograph of each woman were mounted on the wall. http://www.ywhc.org Both of these exhibits are in small museums, but maybe by being involved in small museums teenagers will gain more interest in and comfort visiting other museums.

    • lizcongdon says:

      Thanks for your comment! These sound like great programs. One thing I’d like to see museums work on is creating programs that do not require prior commitment from the teens. There are tons of great programs that have the teens work on some project for a few months (high school internships, exhibition designs, etc.). I think that the young people who participate in projects like those already love museums, but we need to focus on bringing in a wider audience with students who are otherwise not interested in museums. Lets keep pushing for more drop-in and one-time events!

      Also, see Mike Murawski’s follow up conversation with Howard Hwang, it really brings this conversation to a more thorough level: http://bit.ly/10js0Or

  2. lindseymarolt says:

    Involving teens the way those two museums did is a great start, but I think it’ll take a bit more to involve those like Howard Hwang. Working with local youth or high school classes are great, but they involve only small groups of teens and I’m not convinced that the resulting exhibits appeal to other teens any more than regular exhibits (I could be wrong, of course, this is based just on a cursory look at the links you provided).

    I think museums need to take it a few steps further and work harder to create environments that are welcoming to teens who think that museums suck to begin with. They need to be surprising and relevant and fun. The difficult question of course is how do we do that? I think we’ve all seen things meant to appeal to young people that just come off as out of touch. I liked what Julie Broadbent did at the Antique Boating Museum (See previous post: “That belongs in a Museum!”) with the Pirates of the Caribbean Teen night where she asked what kids were interested in and then made that work. We need to do more than help a few token teens put up an exhibit – we need to find out what they want and make that work with the mission.

    • lizcongdon says:

      Lindsey-

      I love your comment because it makes me think of the movie Big (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094737/). As you said, “I think we’ve all seen things meant to appeal to young people that just come off as out of touch”. This is true in the museum industry as well as the toy industry (at least the one represented in this movie). In it, the main character (a 12 year old boy) is magically given the body of an adult and becomes a toy designer at FAO Schwarz. He was successful because his bosses were essentially asking a child what a child would like to see in a toy. This highlights the importance of sharing authority in museums, as we hear about from Sam and Eric in more recent posts on Museum Matters.

      • Liz, I’m adding Big to my list of movies to watch over break now! I think this gets at the very root of the problem -just ask! I think the way we ask is also really important. For teenagers, ask on the various social media platforms. I love when museums tweet questions and genuinely want responses from their followers. Of course, we have to get these audiences to “follow” or “like” museums first. I wonder how effective blogs geared toward specific age groups could be…Having a blog written in a language and style more accessible and fun for teens might make them excited about actually going to the bricks and mortar site. It could also foster a sense of community and build relationships with its user. With the Internet, there are so many ways to engage the youths out there. We already have a leg up ourselves as recent graduates!

  3. ericcgp says:

    The way Howard closed his post was pretty alarming to me:

    “I used to ask my history teacher why art was important. She told me that it helps us understand how people expressed themselves in ancient times. I asked why we’d want to know that. She told me to stop asking stupid questions. So I’d be like, how is that a stupid question? Then I would get detention. But it’s not a stupid question, is it?”

    How can a teacher in his or her right mind tell a student to stop asking questions that fundamentally address the importance of learning? Isn’t learning about asking questions? I think we can all agree that teachers have the ability to make profound impacts on our lives, positive and negative. Howard’s teacher embodies why museums CAN suck. But, they don’t HAVE to. One lousy museum experience can be a deal breaker (especially for someone already skeptical of museums), just as one excellent museum experience can be a deal maker. Maybe high schools should consider teaching museum studies courses–or at least apply museum studies to art/history/social studies courses–that expose teenagers to the other, not-so-stuffy side of museums (enter places like the City Museum–thanks Lindsey!–http://citymuseum.org/site/).

    I can only speak from my school experience, but aside from a trip to New York City offered to juniors and seniors in art elective courses (drawing and painting, pottery, etc.), there was no in-school opportunity to go to a museum after elementary school. I’m sure budget restrictions were a factor, but maybe middle schools and/or high schools should look into offering more museums trips for MORE students (not just those that “seem interested because they take art classes”). And if middle school and high school teachers could make learning enjoyable, then the idea of going to a museum with your friends and classmates shouldn’t suck–right?

    – Eric

    • lizcongdon says:

      Eric-

      I see below that you’ve already read Mike Murawski’s blog about his follow-up conversation with Howard Hwang (http://bit.ly/10js0Or), but I have to say after re-reading your comment that you are absolutely right about fighting for increased field-trip opportunities to museums. As Howard told Mike, he started to become interested in museums when he took trips in college with specific (related) classes like biology. If we can get students in earlier, we will have a few more years of their lives to encourage them to become museum advocates.

      Also, I’ve spent some time this week with a friend who recently got a job as a biology teacher at an alternative public charter school in Ithaca, NY (http://www.newrootsschool.org/). Because they are a charter school, they have less restrictions. She can take her students out on field trips any time she feels necessary (within the county surrounding the school) WITHOUT having to have parents sign permission forms or even asking the administrative staff. Although it sounds a little too-good-to-be-true, think of the benefits that increased field trips could have for these students!

  4. I was lucky enough to speak with the now 26-year-old Howard about his article (written in 2001), his thoughts about museums, and what he thinks about all this attention surrounding his article so many years later. Here is the link to my notes and thoughts from my short but very interesting phone conversation with Howard Hwang:

    “Epilogue: Connecting with Howard Hwang” – http://bit.ly/10js0Or

    • lizcongdon says:

      Mike-

      Thanks so much for your investigative work and thoroughness. Everyone should read this follow-up post and be inspired to not ignore difficult audiences as they hold great potential as museum advocates!

  5. ericcgp says:

    Mike,

    Great follow-up article, interesting to hear about Howard’s reactions to his article. Next stop, California Academy of Sciences…

  6. mbalexander says:

    Liz,
    I agree we need to make museums more accessible for teens and young people who are just dropping in. I think it starts with listening to what they have to say. In my interview with Lisa Falk she told me about using teenagers as a focus group for planning her exhibit “Through the Eyes of the Eagle”. She wanted to reach the Tohono O’odham youth and Hispanic youth of southern Arizona and make a dynamic exhibit about diabetes and health. She, and her community advisory board, felt this was an important group to reach since teens are at a place in their life where they are beginning to make their own decisions. The decisions they make as teens could impact their health in later years. In order to reach this group they conducted focus groups with teens and asked them for their interests, what they knew (or did not know) about diabetes, and what they wanted to see in an exhibit. The focus group came up with ideas for a dynamic comic book about diabetes that combined Tohono O’odham traditions and storytelling elements with the teenager’s love of skateboarding. The exhibit incorporated skateboarding and really connected with something that this population of teenagers really enjoys. Would the museum have thought to incorporate skateboarding without the teens involvement? I do not know. But its probably doubtful. The comic book they created was placed online and digitally voiced in English, Spanish and Tohono O’odham by teenagers from the community, again getting them involved in the process. Although they did speak with a select group of young people I really feel they attempted to make the exhibit accessible for all teens in the communities they were targeting. I think it shows how important it is to share the authority with a group like teens especially when they are the group you are trying to get into the museum.

  7. These articles and comments remind me of my own experiences in museums. When I was a kid, I loved going to museums. My parents always made museums a priority and I was lucky enough to go to an elementary school that took us on a bunch of trips to museums. Everyone loved them. Then as I went through middle school and high school, my classmates views on museums started to change. All of the sudden museums were “uncool, boring, lame.” When I was on a trip to Europe in high school, we went on a lot of city and museum tours, and I seemed to be the only student interested. These reactions started to make me self-conscious about my love and enthusiasm. I wonder how many teens “hate” museums because of the perception that museums and history have in teen culture? How do we make museums cool?

    • lizcongdon says:

      Jillian-

      Your response is so interesting to me because it really plays into what I’ve been considering researching for my thesis: how teens (especially boys) lose interest in museums. Last year I read “Life Stages of the Museum Visitor” (Wilkening + Chung), and one of the chapters points out that pre-teen boys generally love museums but by the time they are adults they have lost interest (more so than women especially). Since I read that, I have wondered if it was some psychological change that made them seek out more action-related activities or maybe as you have pointed out, they caved to the peer pressures of high school and museums being “boring and lame”. Maybe by examining this issue from the base psychological level and taking in social pressures, we can figure out ways to make museums more interesting to this under-engaged audience.

      P.S. I’m glad you got over your teenage self consciousness and decided to pursue museum work!

  8. kwoodling says:

    You raise some wonderful points, Liz. I think one way to start reaching these more diverse audiences and groups of people is to apply some educational theories, particularly those theories that relate to different types of learners. In education, to reach as many students as possible, a teacher must first get to know her students- their strengths and weaknesses, what engages them, intrigues them. Then, a good teacher will differentiate her lessons, providing different learning opportunities designed to help each student, based upon students’ characteristics. Whether that is providing a graphic organizer to understand a text, to repeat directions multiple times, or moving a student closer to the board so they can see (these are very basic examples of differentiation, of course). However, this same principle can be applied in the museum. Museums need to first understand and get to know their audiences, particularly these underrepresented groups, like teenagers. By providing various learning experiences, whether through interactives, signage, or programs, museums can widen their appeal. Seeking input can only strengthen their role in the community.

    • lizcongdon says:

      I love the extra knowledge you bring to this conversation thanks to your education background. Your comment makes me think of how well the Boston Children’s Museum engages different types of learners: they provide opportunities for kinesthetic learners (by using your hands to pedal a contraption that creates power), visual learners (all of the text is so colorful and fun!), and auditory learners (I loved how the light-up square floor game read instructions aloud to the players before each game began) as well as many other types of learning activities. The combination of learning styles makes the BCM museum fun and dynamic; two features that help engage ANY audience, not just children!

  9. Great points and pertinent questions. Incredible to see this conversation grow over the course of the past two decades!

    This whole conversation has really struck a cord in our programs at the Walker Art Center and among the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Councilmembers (WACTAC). Check out the response by Asiya Youngmark, one of this years WACTAC members: http://teens.walkerart.org/2013/01/08/do-museums-suck-a-teens-perspective/#tac

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