Engaging the Young Professional

Today’s #edutues twitter chat investigates how museums engage young professionals in the museum world. It’s been a fun and interesting chat, but sometimes 144 characters is not enough to delve into the complexities and nuances of talking about this audience. I’m extrapolating some of my ideas here.

In order to successfully engage a young professional/young adult audience a museum must be comfortable with taking risks, trying new things and partnering with local creatives. Here are a few lessons I have learned from observing success-stories in the field:

Show Trust

A younger audience may be at odds with a museum formality and classic visitor expectations. Millenials are at an exploratory age (just out of college, exploring the career world) and coming up against the challenges that come with exploration. This audience is developing their professional voice and inventing new career paths in the digital era.They are easily criticized for an overindulgence in social media, short attention spans, criticized for their informality.

Museums can feel intimidating. Museums need to show trust to this audience.

The Williams College Museum of Art currently explores this idea through lending out original works of art to college students via the WALLS program. Students line up and pick out works on a first-come-first-serve basis to hang in their dorm/living spaces. That’s right. The museum loans out works from the collection for dorm rooms. It has become a popular way for students to build a personal connection to an artwork, and a personal connection to the museum. The entire program runs on trusting the students to care for the work.

Build Creative Partners

The Denver Art Museum released a report after a three year engagement experiment geared towards young audiences. They concluded that the programming they worked with engaged more of a style, rather than an age range.

We originally thought of this audience as an age group but later realized that style, not age, was a better way to categorize the target audience.

The biggest cause for their success? Building authentic partnerships with creative partners outside of the museum. Lindsey Housel, the Adult Programs Coordinator at the time, uses the metaphor of the museum as a front porch that I constantly return to in my work:

In the course of working on her master’s thesis, DAM educator Lindsey Housel researched public and private spaces and came up with the idea of the front porch as a meeting place that’s neither wholly private or public. “It’s like having a party at your house,” she explains. “It’s your space, but you don’t entirely control what happens. It’s also about the people who are coming and what they bring to the table. You can’t always be sure of the outcome, but as long as you are being true to who you are, that’s okay.” That part about being “true to yourself” is important. It can’t be a forced effort; it has to resonate with an institution’s overall values and mission while at the same time welcoming other perspectives and remaining open to collaboration and co-creating.

Keep your content Authentic

I’ll return again to the Denver Art Museum’s report: although irreverence is good, irrelevance is not. 

Informality is not always shallow. Delivering substantive content in a personable context seems to hit a sweet spot for this audience. Museums should not shy away from delving into their rich content. Programming should focus on creating authentic connections with the substantive ideas museums explore themselves through exhibitions- otherwise the museum becomes a venue rather than a host.


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