Millennials and museums: the challenges of the on-demand generation

In a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), millennial attendance numbers at art museums and galleries was shown to have declined over the last decade. However, museums and galleries still draw a younger audience, on average, than "performance-oriented events, such as classical music concerts, the ballet and opera", which NEA attributes to how technology is being embraced and integrated.

Millennials aren't the only generation using social media or comfortable with technology. But what sets millennials apart is the prevalence of the social technology realm in their day-to-day lives as the accepted norm. This raises some important questions for cultural institutions that are trying to capture the attention of the digital generation which we talk about below.

Competing for leisure time

Smartphones and constant internet connectivity are two things that are typically characteristic of, and expected amongst, millennials. This means that instant gratification and on-demand access to practically anything, anywhere raises the bar for activities, whether virtual or real-world, all competing for the undivided attention of millennials.

"How do static galleries of canvas and artifact engage a generation raised on the reactive pleasures of right swipes and hyperlinks?" — Michael Cannell

Millennials' preference for active, interactive experiences over those more passive and reflective requires museums to reconsider the best way to attract, and retain, younger museum audiences. What can museums offer millennials? Can cultural institutions embrace and adapt to changing visitor behaviours without compromising on their message?

"What we are learning from millennials is that meaningful means active participation... They don't just look at Facebook, they 'like' it." — Jonathan Binstock

The network effect

Millennials are not only accustomed to information and content that can be accessed anytime, anywhere but also real-time information and updates that are shared by others. Word-of-mouth (or word-of-internet?) has found its home on social media channels in the form of selfies, hashtags and geotagging. Many museums have already tapped into the potential of social media platforms to communicate with millennials in the language that they're familiar with. Some some say that this is 'dumbing it down' but it's really about making museums and galleries more accessible to younger generations.

"...we're very much in an of-the-moment social environment right now — people want to use their mobile devices to decide what they want to do right now, and then meet up with their friends and do it" - Elizabeth Merritt

Less tour, more adventure

One-size-fits-all tours aren't very appealing to millennials. Instead, they want a tailored experience that reflects their own interests and values. They want to be entertained as much as they are educated. One company who have identified this need (and are having lots of fun doing it) is Museum Hack who offer unique, unconventional museum tours.

How can museums address these challenges and appeal to millennials?

  1. Make the experience personal and interactive
    Involve visitors in the conversation in way that allows them to share their personal experience or how they feel.

  2. Make the experience social
    Make content shareable - both in real life and online. Visitors like sharing what they've seen, what they liked and where they've been. But they also like seeing what others have shared and liked.

  3. Make it relevant
    Art speaks for itself but universal themes and emotions can tell a story that's relevant to everyone. Make art accessible and relevant.

  4. Make it accessible
    Museums should be a place that is welcoming to all visitors.

Making the museum a place that's engaging and relevant to all visitors is an ongoing process. New technology and changing expectations and behaviours of visitors requires museums and galleries to be open to change and to embrace the challenges as an opportunity to grow and learn.

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