Future of Museums: Audiences

Rebecca Horton, International Training Programme Assistant

This month Claire, Emma and myself attended the Museum Association Conference, Future of Museums: Audiences at the Wellcome Collection, London.

The conference was made up of 15 minute presentations, delivered under topics including: disability, diversity, families, young people and ageing population.

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What was particularly interesting about this conference was the variety of professional backgrounds from which the speakers came. Audience agencies, community groups, neuropsychologists, talent agencies, universities and museums (of course!) were represented.

Many of the speakers dedicate their time to observing past and current population and visitor trends . By understanding the demographic of national and international audiences museums can deduce what audiences need, and can work toward how these needs can be met. For instance, babies born in 2007 in the UK, have a 50% chance of living to the age of 103 years. As a result, museums need to think about they will to cater to increasingly older audiences. Museums should also think about how to represent and be a place to go for increasingly diverse audiences, considering the population of ethnic minority groups in England and Wales has risen by more than double since 1991, to nearly 800,000.

Being aware of these societal shifts and being able to predict future effects gives museums the opportunity to plan ahead. For example, it was stated that younger generations in the UK visit museums for very different reasons to their parents and grandparents. Younger generations are generally better educated and more liberal and UK museums are attracting a more diverse younger audience in comparison to other sectors. That said museums cannot afford to be complacent.

Younger generations appreciate the social benefits of museum visits whereas the main appeal for older generations is heritage and culture. The value of loyalty and commitment that paying for a museum membership card embodies and which older audiences are inclined to purchase, stands in contrast to the flexible booking and ‘try before you buy’ mentality of younger generations. To ensure younger generations become future museum audiences, museums were advised to act now; to start relationships with younger audiences via family activities and immersive young people’s programmes.

Questions raised included how can all groups of society (class, disability, gender, ethnicity…) feel represented at all times? It was suggested that instead of giving each group their own platform to speak from, society should move toward focusing on how we all impact on each other’s narratives. It was proposed that now is a time for depolarisation and institutions in the public sphere, such as museums, should consider what role they can take on in this social shift.

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After an enthralling day of pie charts, percentages and potential deductions one piece of advice stood out: ‘learn to love complexity’. What the world ‘looks’ like is changing rapidly and constantly; museums must learn to use their collection and space to adapt to the variety of needs which old and new audiences have.

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