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Demographic Transformation and…What Next? A Call to Action

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

On May 24th, at our annual meeting in Los Angeles, AAM released the latest CFM trends paper, Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. Betty Farrell and her colleagues at the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago, who prepared the report, combed the literature for research on the relationship between race/ethnicity and museum going and found…good stuff, but less than one would hope. In their wrap-up, they issue some shrewd recommendations to museums for improving this sorry state of affairs. My favorite is: “share your data, guys!” (My paraphrase.) Too much potentially valuable information never goes beyond the museum that commissioned the research. Betty et al observe that “Museums need to develop a shared expectation that the knowledge they collect as individual organizations will be shared with the field unless there is a compelling reason for it to remain confidential.” Amen to that.

But we know enough to take some action now. Given the magnitude and speed of demographic change in America (and the growing gap between the demographics of museum visitors and the American public) we can’t afford to sit around and wait for perfect data. The report concludes with a challenge from AAM to the field to:

• Broaden our sense of identity. What can we learn from other public spaces: libraries, community centers, even coffee shops, bubble tea stores, even taco trucks (see video at end of post)? Wherever people choose to spend time socializing, talking and learning—we have something to learn from those places, as well. We need museums to be places people want to hang out in, not just places they feel they ought to visit—places to check off on their life list, or destinations for the ritual pilgrimage with guests.

• Take responsibility for learning, in depth, about the communities we want to serve. Diversity is fractal—when you take a closer look at categories, they break down into subgroups that contain just as much complexity—right down to the level of the individual. Museums need to look and listen for themselves to understand the nuances of their communities, their shared and different needs. Future posts will highlight case studies from the report, including efforts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose to create appropriate ways to engage diverse communities and sub-communities.

• Invest in the diversity of the field. Eric Siegel, director of the New York Hall of Science, commented on an early draft of the report that “too many middle aged hypereducated white people are going to limit the degree to which museums incorporate other points of view.” Right now only 20 percent of museum employees are minorities. Museums need to tackle this problem at all stages—increase awareness of museum careers, recruit more diverse students into museum studies programs and look outside traditional training programs for bright, interested people and then invest in their continued education. Another case study examines the New York Hall of Science and their Science Career Ladder, which has helped the Hall recruit a diverse staff from the local community.

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• Heed the Millennials’ call for participatory and social activities in museums. There is a rapidly emerging consensus that the most successful museums of the future will be places to hang out, engage and contribute. They will blur the boundaries between “back of the house” and the public side. They will be moderators and filters of contributed wisdom and diverse perspectives, in addition to being sources of scholarship and opinion. This is illustrated in the report with a snapshot of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, recounting how they collaborated with artists, students and teachers in the creation of the exhibit “Artifacts of Our Lives.”

• Take the lead in building a new era! Be positive about your ability to make your museum matter to groups that are not core visitors now, but don’t expect it to happen without a lot of deep thought and hard work.

For our part, AAM and its Center for the Future of Museums pledge to keep driving this conversation forward. We will heed Betty’s call for more and better collaborative research at the national level, we will delve more deeply into the next explorations suggested by this report (generational change, the effects of income and education on museum use) and we will encourage your participation in this exploration of the future.

CFM will also serve as a platform for what we hope will be a lively and contentious discussion of these challenges. Please jump onto our stage: propose a guest post for the CFM Blog, comment on the posts of others, record a “Voices of the Future” video, submit a session proposal to the 2011 AAM annual meeting, invite museum futurists (from CFM or elsewhere) to present at the meetings of other associations or groups. Share any research on diversity that your museum has conducted. Together we will build a bright vision of the future of museums, and with time, turn that vision into a story of a future past.

Scope the famous Kogi Korean Taco truck serving up outside the Japanese American National Museum. (“Gretchen, you gonna check out the museum after you get your food? You better! I’m gonna hold you to that! If I don’t see you in that museum, we’re never coming back!” Food trucks as museum advocates. I love it.)


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