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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Baffling out millennials in museums

We have been a little behind in our reading at the Ministry, so thankfully a friend of ours brought this topic to our attention. 'Have you read this article on millenials in March's Museums Journal?' she exclaimed. 'It makes it sound like all we want is booze and technology! Don't they know we do all the work?!' Digging out the MJ from our 'to read' pile, we found she was right. 'Late-night events and mobile-friendly content are just two elements need to get right for this group' the tag line reads. Oi. Museums like many other industries, seem to be struggling with how to reach out to younger people. The funny thing is, millennials make up a huge amount of museum staff- so why is this so hard exactly?

First of all, it would be impossible to write a short blog which addresses all of the issues of using the term 'millennial' in the first place. Applied to all 18-35 year olds, the likelihood of the stereotypical description of a millennial matching the personality and preferences of a given individual is about as likely as a horoscope predicting your future. Sure, if you say enough general things, you are likely to get a match. Millennials like evening open hours, millennials like hands-on events, millennials like unique experiences- ok, but who doesn't? 

Our issue is not really with the fact that the Museums Journal has published some (fairly accurate) observations about events that entice young people to museums. As a note, I would say that things like Lates events, artistic interventions, hands-on activities and art classes do not appeal uniquely to people in their 20s, they are (or rather should be) part of a broader movement for active audience engagement in museums (regardless of your year of birth). The point is that museums and museum advocacy organisations talk about 'what millennials like' 'how millennials behave', like we are some bizarre, distant race that must be studied by anthropologists. 

Lates event at the National Museum Scotland
Museums, like many sectors in fact, are interested in millennials because they are generally seen as having disposable income which they like to waste in coffee shops or at clubs. Money you could be getting, right museum management? No, according to a recent study, 1/3 of UK millennials live in poverty, and most are struggling with debt. Little indulgences like a nice coffee or a night out at a Lates event are important to bolstering social lives typically limited by our bank balance. Millennials aren't something to be farmed for cash, but an audience that needs museums as much as any other. 

This is made even more frustrating when you think about what percentage of the museum workforce falls within this age bracket. Hello! We are your front of house team, your documentation specialists, registrars, art handlers, researchers, curators, conservators, interns and on and on. Museums are run on millennial brain power. I'm sure if you looked into the teams who are pioneering Lates events in London they are - you guessed it- millennials. So why do policies, events and programmes aimed at people born in the 1980s and 1990s feel like such a burden for museums.

The answer is because you don't listen to us. You don't need to pay marketing companies to tell you how to get in touch with younger audiences, you need to listen to your younger staff members. Despite the shakeups, the short term contracts, the overhauls in museums of the years of the cuts, there remains a massive divide between museum leadership and the people doing the everyday work. I can just imagine a meeting of Directors, puzzling over the 'millennial' problem, reading reports written for them by their younger staff. If giving decision making powers to your junior staff scares you, that might be the reason why you are struggling to attract younger audiences.

I'd like to just say, from my own experience as a so-called 'millennial' and those of my friends, Londoners in their twenties are (generally) educated, cultured, engaged and enthusiastic. Even those who don't work in museums love coming to events because they love performance art or gaming or music. Not just because we like to get plastered and take selfies (although that is fun). No we don't have a lot of money to spend on events (housing shortage, university loans, being poorly paid in museums) but we still like to enjoy our city. You are very welcome to keep on keeping on with the mobile-friendly content and after hours events, but you should probably have a look within your organisation if you are feeling like you need some insights into programming for young people.

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