Recently a teen blogger handily trashed the museum field in a post entitled “Why Museums Suck.” It made the rounds in various online communities, with mixed reactions. Some thought we should try harder to engage the teenage demographic, while others thought we shouldn’t bother. Teens are not typical museum visitors, but children and adults are, so maybe we should just wait it out until they grow up and have families of their own. Both theories make a good point.
To be fair, the museums in question were set up to fail from the start. The teen writes, “This summer, as I set out to visit six museums, I dreaded it, but then I’d have a sudden surge of happiness when I remembered that I would be able to bash them in this article.” It seems he was looking for reasons to complain, and when you’re in a negative mindset, all you see is the negative.
The blogger criticized everything from the cost of the food in a museum’s café to the “boring art” displayed in the galleries. Even things that went right, he still made fun of. For example, after viewing Picasso paintings at the Norton Simon Museum and not understanding them at all, a tour guide attempted to provide an explanation. He writes, “After she explained the painting, I understood it a little more, but I still thought it was wack [sic].”
While this particular blogger went into his experiment expecting his experience to be unpleasant, he did make some valid points about the museum world from a teen’s perspective.
Exhibitions are often developed with two audiences in mind: children and adults. Teenagers are neither. They are a category all their own, and they are extremely difficult to engage, particularly in groups. They don’t want to appear “uncool,” so they spend most of their museum visit looking bored and desperate to break free and drive to the mall. They rarely ask questions on field trips.
But by appealing to teens, we just might improve our overall product. For example, one of the tour guides the blogger encountered “talked like an answering machine.” If this was the case, the guide might want to work on his delivery. The information you’re presenting could be the most interesting facts in the world, but if you’re delivering it flatly, it won’t matter in the least.
Multimedia presentations are engaging to a teen audience who has grown up with video games, on-demand movies, touch screens, and dowloadable music. They expect their leisure time to be more exciting and engaging than we might think. Most museums don’t have the budget to produce flashy multimedia presentations, but most of us can afford PowerPoint and some simple AV equipment. Consider adding an engaging slide show or video clip to your next exhibit.
The Skirball Cultural Center received the most positive critique for its use of technology and its subject matter: “The topic of the museum was Jewish history, and they had pictures and various multimedia that were very pleasing to the eyes. This museum was very advanced and every teen should go to see its touching exhibits. Some parts of the museum were really moving like the Holocaust part. I almost cried. (SHHHHHH!!!!!)” A truly engaging story will cut across all demographics, from kids to senior citizens, and everything in between.
The most honest and credible statement this blogger made was this: “You have to make it hands-on and interactive.” There are many low-tech options museums can employ to create interactive experiences that will appeal to visitors of all ages. The answer isn’t always more money. Sometimes brainstorming on a low budget can lead to even more creative solutions!