Selling Museums to a Tough Audience: Teens
10.30.09 | It was about 2 p.m., before the chocolate and coffee arrived, when I first recognized the familiar signs. Scowls, glazed eyes, Post-It notes scattered everywhere, long dead pauses, chins in hands. The group had reached the creative chokehold, the point when those working at home might start organizing the clutter or watering the plants, the moment about five minutes out from panic.
The 23 people assembled in this Princeton University conference room—all leaders in the museum world—had been invited by the Digital Media and Learning Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to kick-start a complicated, often fear-fraught process: integrating digital media into museum collections to better engage youth. Their immediate task: to break off in groups and create an activity that uses digital tools to engage youth in an exhibit or museum collection.
To add to the pressure, in less than an hour they were to present their ideas to a tough audience—skeptic teens, those very teens who think of museums only as a place to go when grandma comes into town.
Save for some interactive exhibits, museums have been slow to adapt to the digital world. The goal at Princeton was not to design more touch ‘n feel exhibits, but to grapple with the bigger questions: How do you truly integrate museums into the web of learning options that kids have beyond the classroom? How can museums accommodate kids’ desires to be fully active participants?
Museums and libraries have been “ostrich-like,” Marsha Semmel, of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, told the group. They hope “this too shall pass.” But if museums are to continue to remain relevant, they must consider how young people approach learning. They want to be a part of it, not just sit back and absorb information.
Even though this group was hardly the ostriches, they all grappled with the constraints of the current system—from physical structures to limited budgets. What happens to intellectual copyrights? How do you digitize three-dimensional objects? And who’s the boss here? Do we really want 14-year-olds telling us what to exhibit and how?
Lurking behind many of these questions is an issue that crops up a lot in this digital world—who is the expert, who is the editor, who is the curator? How much democracy do we really want?
“Some say, ‘no, we need curators,’” says Elizabeth Babcock, vice president of education and library collections at Chicago’s Field Museum. “Others say, ‘no, that’s what’s wrong with curating. It presumes to know what is interesting. They’re delivering what they think people want.’”
This latter approach, says Michael Edson, director of web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian, risks making museums obsolete. Millennials—those born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s—recently told a focus group that the Smithsonian “is not an institution that understands me.”
This generation demands a lot more. It’s no longer about the Smithsonian saying, “We’re great. Come and love us,” says Edson. Instead, museums must come to terms with opening up their collections for wider access and creating more citizen curators.
The clock now read 3:30 and time was up. Eight teens from Chicago came into focus on the video screen.
First up was Lissa Soep, Senior Producer and Research Directior, Youth Radio, and Drew Davidson, the director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University—who, granted, had a bit of an edge with a title like that. His group’s project had played off the idea of citizen curators.
“You know the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, right?” Soep asked the teens. Blank stares. But she quickly adjusted, asking them what they like to collect. Music, baseball cards, the usual stuff.
“How do you decide what goes into your collection?”
“Stuff that fascinates me,” says one teen. “If I can’t relate to it, then I don’t include it.”
“Exactly,” Soep said, “that’s the process of curation.”
From there it was off and running. The idea was to let the teens become curators of a sort. They would connect a piece of art (in this case, Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on the Grande Jatte” at Chicago’s Art Institute) with an object in their collection, with six connections in between. Maybe Seurat’s painting makes them think of Millennium Park nearby, and that makes them think of another cultural institution like Griffin Theater, which was running Little Brother, which made them think of Xbox, which connects to their favorite game in their video collection. There’s a step missing, but you get the idea.
Meanwhile, three museum curators would do the same thing. Then they all load everything up to the web and have dueling exhibitions. The winner would get to show his or her exhibit in a space at the museum.
The teens’ reaction? “Really cool.” … “There’s an infinite number of things you could connect to.” … “I’d use a neighborhood park instead of Millennium Park. …”
Will it get teens into the museum? It’s too early to tell, but the ball has been set in motion. See how other museums are engaging youth with their collections.
—Art Mobs: Strolling MoMA with Student Curators on Your iPod
—Dig It: Field Museum & Global Kids Team Up to Send City Teens on Virtual Fossil Dig
—Eleven Questions Museums Should Consider Before Going Digital
—Learning at The Edge
—Students Use Digital Tools to Tell a Real Child Soldier’s Story
Leave a comment
Comments are moderated to ensure topic relevance and generally will be posted quickly.