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Film: The Challenge of Engaging Millennials in Art Museums

This presentation on The Challenge of Engaging Millennials in Art Museums was presented at MuseumNext Indianapolis by Silvia Filippini-Fantoni and Scott Stulen from Indianapolis Museum of Art. Silvia spoke about the work that the IMA have done to move away from the more passive forms of interaction traditionally offered by art museums, towards a new engagement model that supports social interaction and participation.

Okay, guys, I have to say that coming after Colleen is hard but coming after Nina, Simon, Shelly and Colleen is career suicide so be kind! My excuse is that I’m not American so my English can be a little tricky sometimes but I think our talk is going to complement very well with what Colleen has just said. Actually I can skip through the first three slides because she’s already covered that so that obviously will give me some more time.

So Scott and I are here today to talk a little bit about the strategies that the IMA has put in place in the last few years to try to engage our millennials. Obviously you’ve heard from Colleen how important it is for the future of art museums to engage this audience, and here, if we want to make sure that this will not be an empty fixture 30 years down the road, we need to do something about it, so here are some of the things that we have been doing, Scott and I at different level.

Myself and my team work mostly to create in gallery experiences that are somewhat more permanent and actually when I shout out to my team, they’re all here and thank you so much for all your help and all your creativity and support, and while Scott works mostly on more event-based experiences but these are some of the strategies that we have put in place in the past few years to try to engage this younger audience and families.

So I’ll start with participation. What does participation mean for us? Well, it means two different things. The first thing for us, participation means engaging visitors and non-visitors in the exhibition development process so we have actually a very interdisciplinary approach to exhibition development. The team is composed of curators, designers, interpreters, interpretation specialists, evaluators that are representing the visitors at the table, but also we engage the visitors and non-visitors directly throughout the entire process.

The first step that we do is we do frontend evaluation with them so we, if we have ideas, possible ideas for exhibition that we want to kind of have a sense whether people are interested in, which kind of demographic might be interested in this exhibition or not, we go out and test it, not only amongst our visitors but also amongst our non-visitors in the region.

So this is an example of a study that we did. We wanted to do a car design exhibition in a city like Indianapolis that’s very important, as a way to bring in different audience to the museum. We had four different ideas and we tested them and the one that we ended up choosing was concept car, not because it was one that people preferred but also because it was the one that was more likely to attract male and family audiences, which we did. We just closed the exhibition and it was successful to really bring in this audience so these studies can help you inform decision of where you’re going.

Once we actually decide what exhibitions to do we go back to our audience who are visitors and non-visitors, to try to kind of fine-tune the concept a little bit more so we start kind of developing some ideas of what are the themes of the exhibitions and then we go out and ask people, what do you know about this subject? Are you familiar at all? We show them some photos, we show them some images and then we get feedback about what they’re interested in and see if that aligns with our original ideas, and if it doesn’t align, then we adapt it a little bit.

This is an example from an exhibition that’s opening in three weeks. It’s about a German American printmaker, Gustav Baumann, and one of the things that people told us throughout the formative process was that they wanted to understand how these prints are made. This was something that the curator wasn’t very keen on addressing because for the artist this is a transparent, it needs to be transparent but everybody told us I really don’t understand how this works, how can he make this things, so we have incorporated in the exhibition a number of elements that will address this topic, including an artist in residence who will demonstrate the process there.

Sometimes throughout the brainstorming session of what to do, we also use design thinking so this is an approach that sort of helps the brainstorming process, and as you brainstorm, you develop quick prototypes and you go out and test them with the visitors so it has helped when, for instance, for our dream cars exhibit to come up with some ideas. Once we have chosen the ideas that we wanted to implement we have continued the prototyping process throughout the development of these applications so this is me testing with one of … Gavin is actually the son of one of our staff but we also do it with visitors. This is a sort of magnet wall that we have upstairs that kids can use to build their own car.

So we go through sort of an iterative process and we test and test things over and over again to a point that actually we have created a space now which we’ve opened this week for one week, which we call ‘Test it Lab’ where we make available a number of prototypes for people to come in and test and give us feedback, but it also becomes a space for engaging the audience in a different way.

So we not only test prototypes of interpretative tools or participatory tools, we also test visual identity. We test titles. We want to make sure that people understand what this exhibition is about. This is an example where the original title, [‘Paintings in the Round’] was associated with a lot of things that had nothing to do with the exhibition so we end up changing the title to on the flipside ‘Secretes on the Back of Painting’ because that seemed to tell more about what the exhibition was.

We don’t stop there. When the exhibition opens we continue to test, so the first two, three weeks are fundamental. We spend a lot of time in the gallery, we observe people, we talk to them, and there’s still a few things that we can fix so here is an example of a touching experience. That car you see up there is made of fabric and that’s the fabric of the car so you can touch it. But unfortunately the people thought that that was the interior of the car so we changed the text to make it more explicit that that was a fabric that was outside because it didn’t look like fabric when you looked at it from close, in person.

And in the end we do summative evaluation because we want to know okay, who’s coming, how are they engaging with the experience and what are they taking away from it. This obviously doesn’t help us to make changes to the exhibition but it gives us information about things that we can do in the future, so this is the first way in which we engage our audience through participation.

There is another way that we engage our audience – through in gallery participation, by giving them the opportunity to create something and then share it with the rest of the audience, so we provide them with a platform to share their own creations with other visitors, and it is something that has been successful, and people that are not participating themselves seem to enjoy what people contribute so this is really something that we’ve been doing a lot.

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One of the first examples is this project called ‘Inspired by Matisse’ which we did a couple of years ago for a Matisse exhibition, so we included a bunch of ipads on a table in the gallery and people could draw something that was inspired by Matisse. They could submit it via the [app] on a website where people would comment and vote. Every month we would choose winners for different age categories and we would exhibit them inside the exhibition in proximity to the actual works that they were inspired by and this was really successful. We had about 4,000 submissions that actually were submitted. We know from evaluation that about 20% of the exhibitors spent time designing something which they didn’t submit afterwards so this gives you a sense that about 10% of the visitors took part in this experience.

A similar example but analogue, we did for the O’Keefe exhibition. This exhibition was about still-life drawing so we recreated a sort of south western still-life with – put some tables and papers and allowed people to draw, and we had one every four visitors making a drawing so that’s huge if you think about it. Some of them shared it on the wall there, some of them took it home but that’s a lot for us. It’s a very successful experience.

And then again in the Baumann exhibition we will have workshop during the course of the exhibition inside the exhibition, not somewhere else, the workshop is really inside the exhibition. People will be able to come and create their own print so these are examples of how we allow room for participation and for creation and for sharing.

The next concept I want to talk to you about is the importance of getting multisensory experience. We’ve obviously heard it yesterday but this is something that we obviously always keep in mind because the younger generations tend to respond to things that are very different from the baby boomers so we want to make sure that we provide opportunity with less … create experience with less text and more visuals, whether those are images or videos, and even when we add text we try to introduce images to help reinforce some of the concept for those that are not willing to read.

We also develop content across multiple platforms. People learn in different ways so we want to make sure that the same concept is delivered in various different ways so that there’s something for everybody there. And then obviously we try to create tactile experiences, which is very important for us. It’s very difficult in an art museum – we tell people not to touch, but we create moments in which this is possible.

So here is a table that we installed just yesterday in our Asian gallery, so there is a ceramics exhibition, and we kind of … a very important aspect of these objects is they were made to be held, and the way they feel in the hands is very important to understand the beauty and appreciate these objects so we created a moment where visitors can effectively touch, feel the differences between the different type of ceramics used; there’s also the shape and how they feel in people’s hands so we try to incorporate these more tactile experiences as well.

Something that we want to experiment more with is also sound. It’s a little bit more complicated and challenging because some people hate it, some people love it so find a good balance but it’s something that we’re working on for next year.

The other aspect obviously we’ve heard from Colleen it’s very important because a lot of people come to the museum, especially younger people, not so much to learn but for social interaction so whenever we design these participatory experiences we want to make sure that they stimulate, they allow, they support social interactions so the way that we design them, the number of ipads in a space, the way that this whole system is designed has to keep in mind that it needs to stimulate an interaction between various members of families or adult groups.

So here’s an example of something that is up there now. It’s on the second floor. It’s our car design studio and we have two experiences there. There’s an iPad that allows you to design your own car and there’s build-a-car magnet activity that I told you before. We’ve done observation and we’ve noticed that both of these activities are really stimulating the interaction between family members, and there you can see some of the questions that people are bringing up as part of the conversation.

What is interesting is that when we have something like this, which was an activity around understanding colour theory for a new impressionist exhibition we had, we noticed that the interaction happened particularly in the hands-on part of the experience. When there’s text and images there’s less conversation, less cooperation, but really the hands-on and participatory experience that really stimulate the social interaction so we always try to include them because more naturally they lend themselves to support that kind of experience.

Finally, I think an aspect that is really important to provide for the younger generation, is that these experiences that we provide need to be fun, so here are a few examples of something that sometimes it has a learning component but sometimes it doesn’t but we’re okay with it as long as people feel engaged, feel that this is making their experience personal and they have something to take away from the experience.

This is the probably the most successful example that we’ve done. This is an application that we developed for our new impressionistic exhibition. It was a portrait exhibition so what we did was successful selfies so we created an app where we allowed people to take a photo of themselves and then turn it into a neo impressionist portrait which was then projected outside the exhibition and that they could email to themselves. 60% of the visitors took part in this experience and that’s for an exhibition that was mostly visited by older visitors, so I think that we would have had an even higher percentage of satisfaction.

This is another thing that kind of builds on the success of certain ideas that are very popular amongst millennials so it’s the buzz feed quiz. Who has not taken one at least once? So we had this dream cars exhibit, we had 17 cars and so we thought, well, people can learn more about the car if they answer a few questions and find out which car fits their profile better. We put it outside the exhibition and made it available online, and again we are still looking at the numbers but it’s certainly more than 50% of the visitors taking part in this experience so very successful.

A few other examples: I don’t have a lot of time to talk about them. What I recommend is that we have prototypes for this in the Test it Lab, so I think you should come and kind of explore them and we can tell you a little bit more but this is for our Gustav Baumann exhibition – people can create their own mark. The artists has created a mark with a heart and a hand which represented his vision of what life was about, so we allowed people to create their own mark and take it home.

This is our operation decode. It’s a fun mystery activity for our exhibition that’s opening in two weeks about the back of the [campus] on the flipside so it’s about understanding what it means to be a curator and do research and solving a mystery. And then something that you can actually do yourself, we have our Wentworth installation out there and you can actually guess the number of books and people that get the closest number can get free membership to the IMA and a few other prizes, so we try to do things that sometimes there’s a learning component but sometimes it’s just fun things for people to do. For us, our objective was so that they would look longer at the work of art so that was like killing two birds with one stone.

So finally, I love statistics, I love a number, not as much as Colleen and obviously more than Hugh, so I will finish with some numbers, so what are the results of all this? What we have seen is that since we’ve used this approach to developing exhibition and incorporating all these elements we’ve seen an increase in visitor satisfaction. This is not true … this is not only for the millennials and not only for the families but it’s also true for older visitors, which means that what we do is not impacting more traditional visitors negatively, which is very important for us because maybe that’s the biggest part of our audience at the moment.

Second thing, which is something that I’ve heard so many times – dumbing down. What this shows is that by doing all these things we are dumbing it up. We are communicating better, our key messages in the exhibition so you see, the number of learning outcome there, above 50, are a lot higher with the new model than they were in the past model. We’ve seen high take-up rates of our interpretative tools, and we’ve also seen take-up rates of our participatory projects, so overall, successful, you see 60%, 40%, that’s a lot for us considering especially that we still attract slightly older audience in our exhibition.

So another thing that we’ve seen is that families, millennials and facilitators, which are people that come to sort of engage socially, really seem to be more attracted to this participatory and hands-on experiences, while older audiences and people that are more focussed on the learning motivation are more likely to use more traditional form of interpretation like text, audio guides and guided tours.

The last slide I’m going to finish with is this, so you guys are familiar with the concept of facilitators so these are people that come to the museum for social interaction. In the past four years since I’ve been here we have seen a progressive increase of the number of people that come to the museum for sort of a social experience.

What we have not seen yet, unfortunately, we see that the millennials and families that come are certainly more engaged. What we have not seen yet is a higher number of these visitors, so Scott will maybe address some of the things that we plan to do in the future or we have to do in the future as an institution to also bring more of these people here so here’s Scott.

Scott Stulen: Numbers, numbers, numbers. Okay, so when we were putting this [unintelligible 00:16:00]. Now I’m going to show a bunch of pretty pictures and tell stories. I’m the curator, so to Colleen’s question about what are we doing to attract these younger audiences here at the IMA – they actually created a whole curatorial department which I’m the head of, so it’s the Audience Experience and Performance Department.

My team is actually running the show for this event and a lot of other things. This is really our answer, is how do we get that audience that says you know what, I don’t know if the museum’s really for me or I went on my 4th Grade field trip there and I saw it; I don’t need to go back again; how do we get them to come into the museum so we’re charged with bringing in those audiences.

This is one of the first programmes we actually did. We set up shop down in Monument Circle here and set up an office of art grievances. You could actually file a government form against how art had wronged you at some point and then they filed it, and a lot of people thought it was legit because we were in front of a government office when we did it.

So our wing is called RX. This is kind of the umbrella all of our programming is under and it really is like the R&D department here at the IMA so that we’re able to do a lot of different experiments, try things out that hopefully can be implemented into broader things within the institution but we’re given the permission to fail, and given the permission to try a whole lot of different things.

Now I came from the Walker Art Centre where I worked with my colleagues Sarah and Katie here, on Open Field, so I learned a lot of this on Open Field, which was another one of these experimental platforms at the Walker, and taking some of the things we learned from there and now applying it to the IMA. And what’s unique about the IMA itself is that not only can we do things and in spaces you’d expect, like doing performances in gallery spaces, but we have the unique thing of having 152 acres of campus, having historic houses here, and all of these grounds to be able to play with so it’s a lot of different tools that we can use at our disposal.

So the first things are social. Like Sylvia said, we want to create activities and we wanted people to come and bring their friends, particularly if we’re getting younger audiences, here they’re not coming alone; they want to come and hang out and bring their friends as well. So one of the things is just putting small props. When I first came in, and our department’s been here about a year and a half now, we had a little bit of budget and what we chose to spend that on was picnic tables and hammocks, and you sat on my picnic tables for lunch yesterday. A really cheap thing that we could do that what I did was a small prop that says stay here, sit awhile, hang out, and we put hammock out in [unintelligible 00:18:31].


We also took our café, which in the winter is awful depressing, and we took the park, that of course is dormant in the winter, and we brought it inside so we put turf down, we put deck chairs, we put a lending library in there and we even put a vinyl library in there. What I love about this photo is that this is three generations trying to figure out how the turntable works and about 15 minutes after that that kid destroys it! We went through a lot of turntables.

It’s also using familiar platforms like community day, so we do community days here which are free days at the museum, and what our focus is with these is to bring in a lot of audiences by partnering with as many local organisations as we can, so they are bringing their audiences here to the museum as well and introducing them to what we’re doing.

And then family days – not a new concept and most museums probably do family days, but how we angle our focus is we make activities that are geared to the parents but also that the kids could do as well, so that they’re both actively participating and it isn’t just the parents on their phone or their kid kills time making some art project.

We also do things in this theatre here, here’s one that we partnered with [Indy[ Film Fest called ‘Cereal Cinema’ so we invite, on Saturday mornings, parents to come here and see movies from their childhood, from the 70s, 80s and 90s that their kids probably haven’t seen yet and eat a bowl of cereal while you’re watching the space – as simple as that.

We also started an artists’ and residents’ programme, a performing artists’ and residents’ programme, and the first group that we partnered with is a local collector called ‘No, no Stranger’. It’s two-year residency and they are millennials who’re inhabiting the museum here, and we’re not only supporting their career and allowing them to develop, but they are programming our spaces, they are programming things on this stage and also teaching classes here at the museum.

We are actually taking good ideas and franchising them from other places. [Unintelligible 00:20:25] Bingo is from Highway Theatre in Portland. We’re the first franchisee of this, and what it is is taking exceptionally bad films and turning them into a game so we played Bingo along to bad 80s action movies for this and it’s kind of mystery science theatre meets Steven Segal.

Monster Drawing Rally invites a hundred local artists to come here and draw live in front of an audience and all those drawings are immediately for sale for $35. This has popped up around the country. It demystifies the process of making art. It highlights the local artist community here and allows people to have a first introduction into collecting.

Participatory – how do we get things that we can do together? We start a grownup summer camp, and Caleb France, who’s the chef at [unintelligible 00:21:08] all ate last night, here’s Caleb out on an open pit fire making breakfast for the group that they had just foraged from the forest around on the ground so for grown-up summer camp we made breakfast, we foraged, we went on a sienna-type hike, we built cardboard box forts so we did stuff for adults that normally kids do. It’s a lot of fun when you can do it in the safety of other adults.

We went out and learned about our bee colony that we have here on campus. [Ann Turell] moderator did an opera for them on the pier. We have a class of [art cross fit] which we had an art historian and an artist teacher and it’s about physicality in the arts, so they go through the galleries and learn how to hang a large painting from the crew or pose and do life drawings in other spaces. This is actually performing [Owen Worm] piece.

Inviting artists where the community can participate. We’re going to do a piece with Minnesota Artist, Karl [Unish]. This is a 50ft Christmas tree completely made out of kids’ toys. It lights up on the inside. This will be in front of the Lily House Historic Mansion near the end of October. All the toys are going to be crowd sourced from the community and then a week before Christmas it will be taken apart and given to less fortunate families in the neighbourhood.

And then how would you our audience become performers so this is a piece we invited 75 local guitar players to stand under this piece, which is [aligned] as a solar clock, so on the equinox at five o’clock we played a very, very loud E chord all together to chime the clock. Or taking and putting the gallery in a place where unexpected. This is a piece that Michelle [Grabner] who’s the artist, is showing upstairs. We did the temporary suburban so took a gallery space she has in Chicago, recreated it and put it into our park so people that normally wouldn’t ever probably set foot in our gallery are stumbling in and seeing local artists showing in the small pace out in the park.

And the unique things. This is actually our campers all wearing their little bee antennas, going out to the beehives. Our brunch, so with this we partnered with local chefs, musicians to do a brunch in a space that normally we don’t do things like that, like the stage here, and we listened to an album that isn’t out yet. So we worked with a record label to get something with the test pressing an album to hear it two months maybe before it’s actually released and having a meal that is not available in a restaurant, so creating these unique, exclusive experiences that can only happen here. So the last one we did for the sun [lux] [unintelligible 00:23:33] here, we hazed the whole space, had a five-course meal and everybody walked out with a vinyl copy of the record before it came out.

Putting performances where you don’t expect them. This is a piece out on the lake where they [actually hide the phones] in the lake where people are taking part in a composition by dropping stones into the water, or having an artist, Christ [Colenmeyer] who’s doing performances around the gallery with a 200ft cord, so the idea is going and looking at works of art and hearing the sound of the different spaces [unintelligible 00:24:12] the amp didn’t move but the guitar player did.

Or one of our community days we do this silent night thing, this Saturday after Thanksgiving so when you’re sick of your family and you’re sick of shopping, you can come here and we have things that are silent and by themselves, so you can come and e by yourself and do these programmes so listen to music or do a one-on-one DJ thing where the DJ has one song for you just through headphones.

And then the best thing is taking … really the approach to all the stuff that we do is taking something familiar and then twisting it and making it new, so for this I came from Minnesota. We showed Fargo for our winter nights film series but this year instead, we did it in January outside, 15 degrees, we sold out so 300 people watching Fargo outside in January. The best thing about this is when you set up a platform for something to happen that you didn’t plan, they just kind of go there, the whole front row made [unintelligible 00:25:05] we call hot dish, but the rest of the world calls a casserole and pot lucks; the whole front row brought a meal to share for everybody there and they just did it which is the dream things.

And, of course, fun – how do you make these things engaging? And I like to say fun does not equal frivolous; smart does not equal boring. I think that’s the thing we always get trapped into, this whole dumbing down things, which we’re not; we’re actually giving entry point into the work.

I really feel strongly that our biggest thing is getting people on campus, particularly younger audiences, and we can expose them to so much if I can get their body here. So we did this at Open Field with the walker but we did the car show, so we did do a regular artist talk like you’d expect but I want to do something a little bit different for this so for the opening party we did a car break-in workshop so people came in all their nice clothes and were locked in the trunk and had to get out. And then they hotwired the car. I will tell you sourcing things, it was so hard to find a car to be able to do that because you need a really old care to be able to hotwire it but it was a lot harder than you think.

So we also worked with Jason [Chichinsky], the artists, to make something else for us and we took a 1983 [Lansia], pig-sliced it, jammed a 1983 Atari into the dash and turned this into a video game controller, so before our film series you could sit and play pole position on a 45ft screen, driving the car controls in the car, and we had Indy car drivers come out here to drive it and they’re awful but this ten-year-old girl just cleaned up on them which was great.

And taking things like our summer nights film series, which has been very, very popular, but enhancing it and how we’re doing it, we wrap activities around it. People are allowed to come up and picnic but we’ve added a bar and food service out there but we’ve also done something that intersects with the marketing aspect so we invite people to dress up for themes, so for ‘The Shining’ we had people dress up, and yes, that is me in my metal outfit and also my [unintelligible 00:27:05] get-up.

And I think a big part of this for me is, as a curator here, is to go out, and I actually DJ and MC a lot of these things myself and I’m willing to do this, to demystify the idea the curator isn’t accessible, isn’t willing to do some of these things and get out into public and into the community, and I kind of like doing it.


We also worked really closely with marketing on all these programmes and we’ve actually created a different voice through our social media platform [for art axe] that works in tandem with the bigger IMA social media accounts but allows us more freedom to talk in a little bit different voice and be able to promote things differently that may be kind of annoying coming from the big account, for the frequency, but this is something we’re working in tandem, and also the conventional marketing for this type of programming doesn’t work very well.

You’re not going to do a billboard for [avand] brunch but you can use word of mouth and you can use social very well for that. We also got a truck. We’ve had this for all the week but with this, the idea is to go out into the neighbourhoods around us to bring tools out to those neighbourhoods, and what this isn’t, this isn’t the mobile IMA to go our artwork out there. This is actually a connector, this is a toolbox.

What I want to be able to do is go out to things that are happening in the community and say we would like to do this but we don’t have the means to do it, can you connect us to a projector, to a sound system, can you connect us to an artist that can make this happen so it’s being driven by neighbourhoods and owned by that; we’re just a facilitator and a connector and that’s how I view the work that we do, as that connection.

I do have some numbers to make Sylvia happy. So we’ve only been doing the art ex programme for nine months so in there it’s been 117 programmes and we’ve had nearly 24,000 people in attendance to those, and we’ve been working with a lot of different artists throughout that.

Things are difficult to track with this. Colleen and I were talking about this. We’re going through so much change at the museum right now, moving to general admission, having a lot of things moving so it’s hard to track where the impacts are happening but one thing I can say is that we’re generating a buzz out in the community, in particular with younger audiences, they are talking about us and they’re coming to events and we’re selling out quickly a lot of the events as well, so we’re actually changing that perception and we’re getting them to turn into members, which is another key because we want to get them to start investing in what we do and the best way to do that is create things you want to actually invest in.

So going forward, last four points: there’s still things to kind of work on with this too. We have to provide relevant engaging content and smarter planning how we sync some of those things up together. I like to say if I gave you free tickets to a football game and you hate football, it really doesn’t matter what the price is, you’re not going to go so you need to have something that people actually want to attend and engaging with that content and I always get my kid in here somehow, I had to get him in.

We want to target our audiences. They’re not monolithic. We want to be able to target different programmes to them, target marketing and also meet them where they’re available. I think this is one of the big things to work on, particularly with younger audiences; you want to come out and do something with your friends, that’s great, as long as it’s between eleven o’clock and five o’clock on a week day, that plays on a Thursday night.

On a Saturday we need to think about how we change our hours and be open later and things too so we can meet that audience. We want to provide amenities. Things like the café should be a driver, not just an amenity that’s there but should be a reason why you actually come to the museum too. How do all these things kind of sync up together and enhance that visitor experience. All this works together.

And finally, carefully balance our free and our paid programmes, so we want to have things that people will pay for and provide really strong reasons so people would want to pay for them so we can do some of the other things. It’s nothing new but it’s to carefully balance those things.

I only went over by about a minute. Not too bad.

This presentation on The Challenge of Engaging Millennials in Art Museums was presented at MuseumNext Indianapolis by Silvia Filippini-Fantoni and Scott Stulen from Indianapolis Museum of Art. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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