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Film: The Mythical Millennial in Museums

Susan Evans McClure, Director, Smithsonian Food History Programs spoke at MuseumNext Dublin about millennials and the museum. “We have to get more millennials!” that rallying cry at museum board meetings, strategic planning sessions, and department check-ins over the past 5 years? And it’s true. But few museums are articulating why this audience is important and how to reach them effectively.

Susan: Good morning. I’m Susan Evans McClure, and thank you all so much for having me today. I’m excited to hear from the other people on this panel, and to share some of the work that we’re doing at the National Museum of American History.

What I am here to talk to you about is something I’m sure you have all complained about in the last 12 months – millennials. So, before we get started, just a quick show of hands, how many of you in the audience would consider yourselves a millennial? Okay, so a couple. How many of you in the audience were born between 1982 and 2000? So, more hands than … So, if you take away one thing from today, please take away that millennials hate to be called millennials. According to the US census, they define millennials as the generation born between 1982 and 2000.

So, why should we care about millennials in museums? Well, first of all, there’s a lot of them. According to the US census bureau, there’s 83 million millennials living in the United States, and actually, that makes them 25% of the population. That makes them a bigger group, currently, than the post-World War Two baby boomer generation, and for those that did statistics, and those baby boomers who might be horrified by that, that’s not the total number of baby boomers, that’s just in 2015; there are more millennials.

Secondly, they are diverse, and diversity matters in museums, as it should, and will continue to become more of a talked about and acted upon topic in the future. Millennials are actually more diverse than every generation before them. 44% of them in the United States self-identify as being part of a minority racial or ethnic group.

It’s also important to note that millennials are a generation. It’s not just people who are in their 20s. This generation will go on to grow up and have kids, and come to museums, and the relationship that they make with museums now will actually shape how they see museums in the future.

And, this last reason to care about them feels sometimes a little icky to talk about, and I should say that we would not say number three if numbers one and two didn’t exist – but, millennials are going to have a lot of money. By 2017, according to Forbes Magazine, they’ll be spending $200 billion, annually. In fact, many of your sponsors and supporters are targeting them right now.

So, museums know that millennials are out there, and they know that they’re important to reach. But, museums and staff are, I think, making a lot of assumptions about how to reach them, without actually using much evidence, so I want to share a few actual statements that have been said to me in meetings.

‘Oh, you want a millennial audience? Well, just give them drinks’. ‘This is a good programme. You should put it on the internet; millennials are always on their phones’. And, my favourite sweeping statement, ‘Millennials like parties’.

But, I think this mentality of, if you build it using technology and booze, they will come, is actually deeply flawed, because it turns out, millennials are just like real people. Much research into this seemingly mysterious group has actually shown that millennials value experiences and authenticity over pretty much anything else.

But wait – museums do authenticity and experiences really, really well, and what millennials want is what museums actually do. So, to actually reach that audience, museums should keep doing what they’ve been doing, and will continue to do, which is listen to their audience, create authentic experiences that focus on participation.

So, at the National Museum of American History, where I work, we talk about millennial audiences a lot. We are the world’s most visited history museum, and we’re part of the Smithsonian Institution, which is the world’s largest museum complex. We get about 5 million visitors a year, and are home to millions of iconic objects that exemplify the American experience.

But, as a National Museum, our work is just that, national. Instead, to reach a millennial audience, what we decided to do was target the people in our own backyard, our local audience of millennials. So, between 2010 and 2011, over 10,000 millennials moved to Washington DC, and in a city with a population of just about 600,000 people, that’s a pretty big percentage. And, if you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m one of those millennials who moved to Washington DC in 2010.

So, to reach this audience, we created a new programme series called American History After Hours. It’s a bi-monthly evening event that brings audiences into the museum for nights of social learning on a huge range of content, from chickens to chocolate, to cocktails.

So, we start with a topic that we’ve tested with this audience. We get their feedback; we ask them what they’re interested in, and then what we do is create a content rich, hands on experience that does include food and drinks. There’s always a panel discussion, activities, interactive opportunities, and importantly for us, we put a lot of museum objects on display. In a place with millions of objects, we display about 1% of the collection that we have, so this allows us to bring some of those collections out of storage and show them to the public.

We keep it fun, but we don’t shy away from controversy. In March of 2010, we did a programme called What the Cluck, which was about chicken agriculture, and we actually got into a really complex conversation about commercial agriculture and how it works, and what we should do in the future.

We’re not the only museum doing this, by any means. There are lots of other museums doing great millennial programming, focussed on content. But, what I’m going to do today is walk you through our most recent programme, called Cooking Korean in America, and help dispel some of those myths that I started with.

So, in March, we ran this programme that looked at why Korean food is so popular. How we got to this point was, we actually wanted to find a content area that people were talking about, that was related to our collections, and we’re opening a new exhibition that looks at immigration and migration in 2017. So, our researchers are working on this right now, and we actually use these programmes as a way to test out some of the content that will go into exhibitions, too.

So, while we did have alcohol, we did really focus on content. We started the night with a kimchi making demonstration from author and chef, Daniel Chang. There was a panel discussion that dug deeply into questions about why Korean food was so popular, and the history of Korean migration in the United States. We had a national public radio journalist talking with two authors who were authors of a New York Times bestselling cookbook called Koreatown. We had a Korean tea ceremony that people got to see and experience and participate in.

Actually, the last question from the panel on that night was from an audience member who was an African American woman in her, probably, mid-30s to 40s, and her question to the panel was, how do people who aren’t Korean get into Korean food? Then, she shared her own story with our audience – we had about 300 people there – she shared her own story with our audience, that she got into Korean food because she got really into Korean dramas on TV, and wanted to learn more, so she started going to Korean restaurants, got really into Korean food, and then came to this panel discussion at the Smithsonian so that she could talk to our panel, who was a Colombian journalist, a Korean American, and a Jewish guy from the Midwest. So, to me, that was an ultimate success, that we had lots of people from lots of different experiences coming together to talk about American history.

So, tickets for the programme are $40, and this is a big deal for us. The Smithsonian Museums are free, and open to the public – that’s one of our core values, and something I believe very strongly in, but we actually learned that, with millennial audiences, if you don’t ask them to pay, they don’t come. So, free tickets weren’t working for us, and we also wanted to give them food and drinks, so we do ask them to pay for it. We also find that we sell a lot of tickets two to three days before the programme happens, which gives me a heart attack every month, but it’s how that audience works.

So, despite being told to put it on the internet, that actually didn’t work for us, to get people to the museum. So, we made the choice not to record the programmes, and not to webcast them. Someone in a panel yesterday was talking about how museums put all this time and effort into creating great YouTube videos, putting them online, and then nobody watches them. That’s what we were doing, so we just decided to stop doing that, and instead, we focus our digital efforts on ways that people will actually make the decision to come to the event. So, we’ve updated our website, and really focus on very easy to read materials – this is what to come, this is what to do, very action oriented, and we’ve built up an email newsletter list.

In our area, probably in a lot of areas, we have found that the number one reason people make decisions to come to an event is from getting an email. So, we send very few emails to this list, and we really focus the emails on content. So, the emails become a way for you to learn more, but also gives you an action to take, to come to the event.

We do use social media, so all those millennials out there can look at it on their phones, but we don’t use our museum’s social media channels to promote the events. We have a national audience, and actually, a lot of our national social media followers absolutely hate it when we tell them about great things that they could never come to do. So, we’ve created locally targeted Facebook events that just go out to our DC audience, and then we use those as a content vehicle, too.

What our audiences keep telling us is that, yes, millennials do like to party, but that’s not all they like. They like what we call social learning experiences. So, we do extensive surveys and audience evaluation for these, and we have heard from people that they really like the learning part. People say things about their own education experiences in schools, wishing that they had had an interactive science class in high school. People love the panel discussions. We were a little worried going into it that you millennials wouldn’t want to sit through a panel discussion, but actually, what we find is that people love the panels, and want them to be longer. And, they learn a lot, and enjoy the alcohol.

So, most important to me, what we’re finding is that what’s good for millennials, is good for everyone. You may notice, on this slide, that these people are not millennials; they are an older audience that we’re also attracting to these programmes, and these people are actually learning how to make an old-fashioned, at a programme we did about the history of scientific glass blowing in the United States.

We found repeatedly that the topics that we think are going to attract millennials actually sometimes attract this older audience, too. The older audience shares the same desire to have a social learning experience, to come together with people, and to do hands-on activities.

We did a programme in January on the history of tailgating in the United States, so that is when people come to sporting events, open up the back of their car, have a few beers, grill some hotdogs, and get excited about sports. We thought, wrongly so, sure, millennials, beer, they’ll come, it’s sports. But actually, the majority of the people there were over 60 – they were the people who have the time to go to tailgating events every weekend, because they’re retiring. So, we’re really learning that even our own assumptions, sometimes as millennials, planning these programmes, are not correct at all, so we’re having to continue to test and talk to our audiences.

I would love to tell you that it is all sunshine and roses, and it’s perfect, and we get every millennial in DC, and they’re really happy, but we have had plenty of challenges, or opportunities across the board, as this has been a way for us to try a lot of new things. But, one of the biggest actual surprise successes that we’ve had has been the impact on our internal museum culture.

So, in this era of shrinking budgets and increasing demands on a smaller and smaller workforce, our staff has very little time to come together and create something that has a bit of a, let’s put on a show kind of feel to it. So, we intentionally asked people from around the building who haven’t worked on programmes, or even worked with the public before, to come and be part of these programmes. So, we talked with curators, archivists, even our IT department has helped with things, and we actually put out a call to the whole museum to ask if anyone wants, and is able to work that evening.

We intentionally try to make it fun for them – it’s a lot easier to ask your IT guy to fix your computer, or gal, IT guy or gal to fix your computer, if you have spent some time with them and created something together.

So, we find that the way to the hearts and minds of millennials at the National Museum of American History, is to make personal connections with content that forges a lasting relationship with the museum, and we are keeping the booze as part of the programme.

Thank you.

Susan Evans McClure, Director, Smithsonian Food History Programs spoke at MuseumNext Dublin about millennials and the museum. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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