where the young folks are

One of the most perplexing things about being gainfully employed by job hunting is now that I don’t have a regular museum gig, I finally have time to participate in awesome and informative Twitter chats about museum issues, yet no place to officially use what I’ve learned. Museums, y’all are missing out here. Hire me already.

I frequently lurked on #EduTues. Today’s topic, how to engage “young professionals” in museums, has been tackled for a while. It’s been discussed long before I was considered one of them and will be long after I’m not. However, it’s important this discussion continues and I appreciated the way it unfolded with considerate critique and respect for the issue’s inherent complexities.

Twitter literally has its limits, so Lauren Abman’s helpful post “Engaging the Young Professional” digs deeper into how museums often present to this particular audience.

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.

Putting the emphasis on behaviors and perceptions is spot-on. There are barriers aplenty to young people viewing viewing museums as valuable assets in their lives, least of which are whether they can afford the lowest tier of membership or a ticket to the big gala.

Museums have a bad habit of ignoring certain communities until it’s time to monetize them. The life cycle of youth engagement tends to go like this:

Stroller tours?! (insert hearty laugh here)

We’ll tolerate kids as long as they’re enrolled in our programs. It’s bad enough we have to let their schools tour here. 

Teens? Yeesh, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Next! 

Hey there, twentysomething! Have a free drink and break us off a piece of that Big New Job paycheck.

Congrats on the new baby! Have you considered purchasing a family membership? 

Now it goes without saying that I’m highlighting the most extreme reactions here. But I’ve heard these sentiments, or similar versions, uttered in museums and at conferences and the thinkpieces that support this line of thought are legion .

Listen, if your museum is all about the benjamins that’s totally fine. You may want to consider asking the IRS to dissolve your nonprofit status but still, financial solvency isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s your duty to govern yourselves responsibly in this fashion. But if the only reason you’re courting millennials is so you can groom them for donations you’re not only missing the point, you’re riding the late train.

My love affair with museums is a lifelong one. Introduced to them as a kid, they sparked something in me that I can’t seem to shake. But the truth is I pursued them, not the other way around. The kids who visit a museum on their third grade field trip are forgotten about soon thereafter. Museums don’t check for them until they turn twenty-one and suddenly, through the magic of direct marketing, they’re bombarded by cloying messaging with less subtlety than a hookup app. It’s no surprise millenials are collectively swiping left.

Museums, please just stop. Read this. Then try harder.