Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week
They say age is just a number, but in marketing terms it also signifies potential interests and views. Content catered to children is usually loud, bright and highly engaging, while that targeted towards millennials and young adults may be more digital and technological in nature.
But how much should age be pursued as a determining factor when creating museum exhibitions? These staple marketing mindsets aren’t designed to reflect the interests of every single person in an age category – after all, you’re only as young as you feel – but they are supposed to provide a general overview of habits based on research and experience.
When it comes to museums, many people are of the mindset that every exhibition should be open to everyone, and that no one should feel excluded. Does the use of age as a pitching factor take away from this openness? Can it be used to encourage those who may not otherwise visit the museum to experience culture for themselves? Or is it just common-sense marketing to appeal to the right audience for your museum at the right time.
There are many benefits to child-focused museums. Research shows that introducing children to museums can encourage critical thinking skills, spark curiosity, teach them history, encourage creativity and allow them to think about cultures, experiences and feelings outside their own lives.
At the Hiroshima Children’s Museum in Japan, children are encouraged to learn about all areas of science, including light, sound and space, by engaging with fun apparatus, lightshows, concerts, plays and musicals. There is even a planetarium with programmes that change seasonally.
The best exhibitions for children are those that can engage adults, too, of course. Most adults will find something new to learn and experience about the scientific world at the Hiroshima Children’s Museum. Likewise, institutions like the Roald Dahl Museum in the UK offer story-led workshops for adults and children alike.
Most people understand the need for exhibitions targeted towards children, but making a distinction between young adults and older adults is where things become more divided.
However, research does show that museums must make extra effort in order to encourage millennial visitors. In her journal How to get Millennials into your Museum, Amanda Smith argues that the digital revolution that has so consumed the millennial generation has eroded the desire to gain information from a museum. Why would you, argues Smith, when all information is available at the touch of a button?
Likewise, Millennial Marketing found that millennials are far less likely to visit a museum in their downtime than they are to eat out or go to the cinema.
While it is possible to argue that there is a difference between the strict definition of Milliennial (those born between the mid 1980s and mid-1990s) and the subsequent Generation Z (born between the mid-90s and early 2010s) in both mindset and behaviours, there is certainly some crossover between the two eras – both being heavily immersed in digital culture.
This is why more and more museums are creating content directly for the millennial market. At California’s Exploratorium, the museum aimed to tackle the fact that the vast majority of their daytime visitors were families with children by creating night-time events. Thursdays After Dark allows visitors to get lost in mind-bending exhibitions while also being treated to craft beers and locally sourced food.
The initiative has attracted more than 75,000 visitors since its launch, many of whom fall into the broad millennial category.
It’s possible to argue that by focusing on millennial engagement, museums run the risk of alienating their older visitors. It’s perceived that this can create a divide between older and younger adults which, many believe, doesn’t need to exist.
The answer to this dilemma is, of course, finding balance. While marketing to a younger audience via their preferred channels can attract a new audience, traditional marketing techniques may also be used to complement this and ensure inclusivity.
There are many different factors other than age that museums have to consider when creating an exhibition: gender, race, disability, heritage, language, religion, sexuality and location to name a few. Centring on certain groups that need extra attention doesn’t have to mean ignoring other groups entirely. Instead, these can be seen as an opportunity for them to broaden their usual horizons.
That being said, older museum visitors shouldn’t just be taken as a given. Engaging the elderly is just as important as engaging with millennials because, on a societal level, older adults often suffer the most. In the UK, only one in five older people have regular contact with their family, and more than five million older people say that their main source of companionship is the television.
Museums have the power to tackle this. At the Dulwich Picture Gallery, research into the effects of art on health and wellbeing encouraged the team to create Good Times: Art for Older People. This offers in-house creative workshops for older people, and results have been positive not just for the older participant, but for their carers, family and even gallery staff.
By putting on historical exhibitions centred on eras that older people are likely to have first- or second-hand experience of, there is a strong draw for more senior visitors using the power of reminiscence. Focussing on significant moments and periods in the 20th century can even create a bridge between generations as older visitors effectively give their younger friends and family members a walking tour.
Age is a useful way for museums to address particular topics and engage a particular audience. When used well, exhibitions pitched towards, or designed around, certain age groups don’t have to disenfranchise other age groups as a result.
Take gender as another example. The Brooklyn Museum is set to feature a retrospective of the Boston-born feminist performance artist Lorraine O’Grady this autumn, while the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles will have a survey of the Iranian political painter Tala Madani. What’s more, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is gearing up to showcase the first ever exhibition dedicated to Brooklyn photographer Deana Lawson.
These exhibitions aren’t shy about putting women in the spotlight, and encouraging women to see themselves in museum spaces. But that doesn’t mean male visitors are not welcome. In fact, if no men came to see the exhibit, the point would be somewhat defeated. Instead the aim of such exhibits is to educate men about the female experience, in order to create greater understanding.
The same can be said for age. Exhibitions about certain age groups and time periods can bridge the gaps of empathy between generations, while those simply targeted at other groups can be enjoyed by people of all ages, so long as they are given the opportunity to open their mind.
Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.
The Imperial War Museums as well as the Science Museum Group are set to bring holographic experiences to life in the near future, it was...
Museums shut down during the Coronavirus lockdown are inching to towards reopening, with institutions across Europe and North America looking to welcome visitors again in...
Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week