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Museum Philosophy

Changing Demographics and Museums as Community Activist Organizations

Last Friday I participated in an AASLH webinar led by Susie Wilkening, author of Life Stages of the Museum Visitor and Curator of Museum Audiences with Reach Advisors (here’s their blog). She was discussing new demographic trends from the latest US Census and how they signify changing museum audiences. It is available for viewing here.

Her analysis of the census data was pretty interesting – not necessarily new, but an affirmation of what I might guess. She reported that regular museum-goers are currently 89% white (historically, they have been more like 95% white, so that’s a slight change). However, she pointed out that the projection for the demographic composition of the US in 25 years is 50% white/caucasian and 50% minority (everyone else). In fact, the ratio is already 50/50 for children entering kindergarten. There are a good number of studies showing that the best way to create museum-going adults is to create museum-going children, and that the higher an individual’s education, the more likely he is to go to a museum. Therefore, her message was that museums would be wise to focus on reaching out to minority school-age children in their efforts to sustain or increase their visitor numbers in the future.

Wilkening’s only comment about how to reach out to that demographic was to produce some data on “what makes a museum visit memorable,” citing object-based exhibits and social interactions at the top of the list. Of course, I don’t fault her for the omission. Her goal for the webinar was to provide the statistics, not the solutions. She left the solutions up to her audience.

As a member of her audience, then, I was glad to see the statistics to support what I believe museums should be tending toward anyway – education activism. When museums assume that visitors will come to them, they limit themselves to an audience that tends to be whiter, older, and wealthier. When museums drop that assumption and embrace the task of becoming education activists within their community – ie venturing out to schools and community centers and getting as many fingers as they can into the local education system – they not only expand their audiences, but also use their resources to create a healthier, more educated community.

In the webinar, Wilkening mentioned school field trips as one way to reach out. But I think museums can do better than that. It means field trips, but it also means going into classrooms before and after the field trips to help students analyze what they saw. It means making your institution an easy and accessible resource for teachers – workshops, lesson plans, and easy, cheap transportation and admission. A couple of awesome school programs I like are MassArt’s Looking to Learn series and the Smart Museum’s Art in Focus and smArt Explorers. It also means reaching out to other parts of the community like the Pulitzer Foundation did in Staging Old Masters, where they worked with former prisoners and homeless veterans (I’ve posted about this before, I’m just very impressed with the idea).

Museums should take Wilkening’s data to heart and see that it is just another reason to reach out to the less-likely museum visitors.

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I'm an alternative educator interested in revolutionizing the role that museums and community arts non-profits play in the formal education system. If you'd like to learn more, click on my picture!

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