Susan Evans McClure, Director, Smithsonian Food History Programs
“We have to get more millennials!”
Who hasn’t heard that rallying cry at museum board meetings, strategic planning sessions, and department check-ins over the past 5 years? And it’s true. Millennials, defined by the United States Census Bureau as those born between 1982 and 2000, currently make up 25% of the U.S. population and museums are right to think about their relationship with this critical audience.
But few museums are articulating why this audience is important and how to reach them effectively, instead choosing to focus on what they think will get them in the door. From adding technology to movie nights to DJ and drinks nights at the museum, institutions are all too often following an, “If you build it (with tech and booze), they will come,” mentality. While none of these efforts are expressly bad, and a rising tide lifts all millennial boats, museums are making assumptions as to what they think these Mythical Millennials want instead of making efforts to genuinely engage with the next generation of museum-goers.
It is crucial for museums to step back and define why millennial audiences are important to the institutions and how to reach them. By developing a meaningful relationship with millennial audiences now, museums will both build future support and ensure that their institutions stay relevant in a changing world.
At the National Museum of American History, the approach to millennial audiences has been to treat them like valued learners, respect their input, and keep the booze. This presentation will examine the development and audience response to American History After Hours, an ongoing program series targeted at millennial audiences with a three-pronged approach to developing a relationship with millennials:
Talk with millennials like they are real people and listen to what they want. Reach them where they are.
Develop experiences that focus on content. Drinks may get them in the door, but it’s content that will keep them coming back.
The way to the hearts and minds of millennials at the National Museum of American History is to make personal connections with content that forge lasting relationships with the institution. This model can be extended to museums around the world as they develop strategies to connect with new and growing audiences. But don’t forget the booze.
Presented at MuseumNext Dublin. MuseumNext is a global conference series about the future of museums - museumnext.com