Future of museum audiences

Tonya Nelson, 13.04.2017
Conference report
I had the pleasure of chairing the Museums Association’s (MA) Future of Museums: Audiences one-day conference on 29 March at the Wellcome Collection in London.
 
I really liked the approach the MA took in selecting speakers for the day – there was a good mix of academics and practitioners from inside and outside the museum sector. As a result, there was a lot of good content, so this blog presents a highly abbreviated summary and my own personal reflections on the day.

The day kicked off with a keynote presentation from Jane Falkingham, the director of the ESRC Centre for Population Change at University of Southampton, who shared the latest research of demographic trends. She spoke about demographic changes related to ageing, ethnic diversity, and family structures.
 
The most significant learning point for me was the data on ageing. The statistics on life expectancy were staggering:  In 1901, the average life expectancy for a man was 45. By 2001, it had risen to 75. This is equivalent to 30-years improvement in a century or 3.6 months in a year or seven hours a day. It is predicted that the UK population aged 75 and over will double from five million to 10 million by 2040. Another interesting statistic is that 33%-50% of all children born in the UK in 2014 will live to 100 years of age.
 
This suggests that museums must prepare to serve older audiences, potentially as their primary audience, and think on a more granular level about what the needs may be for people at 60, 70, 80 and beyond.

After the keynote, there was a panel on the subject of disabled audiences. Sam Tatlow, the talent coordinator at television training and consultancy firm Thinkbigger!, talked about the representation of disabled people in television. She showed two very inspiring commercials from the London and Rio Paralympics – they are worth a look – and talked about how Channel 4 went about increasing the number of disabled TV presenters and off air talent as part of the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic broadcasts. Because the pool of trained presenters with a disability was so small, ThinkBigger! was hired to identify potential talent and help develop them.
 
For me, the most interesting element of the Channel 4 journey was that it created self-imposed targets. Why? Because the organisation believed that the targets would offer a competitive advantage in its bid to win the Paralympics broadcast rights.
  
Becki Morris from Culture Warwickshire and the Disability Co-operative Network talked about how to break down the social and physical barriers to accessibility in museums. She pointed out that disabled audiences represent £12bn to the tourist industry.
 
What was very useful to me was the range of examples Morris presented showing how museums can make small and inexpensive changes that result in significant improvements in the experience of disabled visitors. She encouraged museums to adopt a universal design approach, which enables the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.

The panel on diversity featured Omar Khan, the director of race equality thinktank Runnymede Trust, and Avaes Mohammad, who is a playwright and a project manager at British Future, a thinktank that seeks to address people’s hopes and fears about identity, integration and migration.
 
Khan estimates between 1971 and 2051, the number of black and minority ethnic (BME) people in the UK will increase eightfold. For me, one of the most interesting statistics he cited was the significant number of BME people who are underemployed – those who have degrees or advanced education but are in jobs that do not utilise their knowledge or skills.
 
Khan also spoke about migration. Runnymede has developed an excellent resource called Our Migration, which shows how the UK has been shaped by migration from its very beginning – this piece of work seems ripe for a museum to use as the basis for an exhibition or display (several museums contributed to its development).
 
Mohammad, noting that he was speaking at the moment when Article 50 was being triggered, discussed diversity in the context of the Brexit vote. He said that across all demographic groups, those who voted to leave were less educated than those who voted to remain, suggesting this was an issue both of ethnic difference and socioeconomic difference.
 
Mohammad questioned the traditional boundaries between ethnicity, class, race, and religion and encouraged more linking between these forms of identity. I really appreciated his suggestion that museums start to mainstream what are conceived of as special-interest group exhibitions and programmes and start to focus on shared experiences.
 
Families are the bread and butter of many museums, so I was interested to hear the views of this audience panel. Elaine Henderson from Westminster Adult Education Service spoke about the significant barriers to entry for immigrant families for which English is a second language. Sometimes it is not only language that is a barrier, but a lack of money, time and/or confidence to travel even short distances to a local museum.

Henderson said that, in her experience, once these families are in the museum, there is no problem. It is just getting them there. She encouraged museums to look outside their doorstep and help families get to them.

Clare Haywood, the family programme producer at the National Maritime Museum, London, talked about the museum’s ambitious plans to embed family learning across its programme of activity. She discussed four new galleries that are being designed with families in mind and programming collaborations undertaken with organisations such as Punchdrunk.

The second keynote was Anne Torreggiani, the chief executive of the Audience Agency, who offered incredibly insightful data from the organisation’s Audience Finder programme.
 
There was too much good stuff in this presentation for me to summarise here. However, I’ll mention a few facts and figures. The good news is that of the cultural forms studied (theatre, classical music etc.), museum audiences are most representative of society as a whole. However, museums need to increase their BME and disabled audiences to better match the general population.
 
Torreggiani noted that museum audiences are slightly over representative when it comes to older visitors – this may not be a bad thing given what we learned about the way the population is ageing. However, we need to make sure we cultivate the museum-goers of the future and Torreggiani pointed out significant differences in the needs of young audiences.
 
Older audiences are often satisfied with the traditional museum experience, which involves passive learning. However, younger audiences want to participate – they want to be makers and collaborators – and they expect carefully curated “experiences” that cater to their individual tastes. They expect cultural organisations to know what they want. As much as museums provide a learning experience, younger audiences expect a high quality social experience as well.
 
Torreggiani’s keynote provided a good segue to the panel on young people. Miranda Ballin, the ArtWorks artistic director at Valleys Kids in Wales, spoke about championing young people. The ArtWorks team uses creative techniques to aid community development work. According to Ballin, the main factors she believed were fundamental to Valley Kids’ success were a sense of ownership; high level of trust and respect; and engagement through participation – making and creating.

Mark Miller, the Circuit programme lead for the Tate’s Young People’s Programmes, echoed these sentiments in his presentation. He emphasised that museums need to give young people a sense of agency and provide them with the ability to create.

Miller sees young people as ‘cultural producers’ rather than audiences. I like the way he positions the role of the art gallery – he views it as a place where young people can learn how to be full participants in their local community as adults.
 
The final panel brought us back full circle to the subject of ageing. Sebastian Crutch, a neuropsychologist at the UCL Dementia Research Centre, shared how an arts residency programme at the Wellcome Collection is helping to change perceptions of dementia through scientific and creative experimentation.

What I found most interesting was Crutch’s recommendations regarding how museums can address this audience – he said that the best thing museums can do is be a place where people with dementia can have a good social experience with friends and family.
 
Laura Phillips, the head of community partnerships at London’s British Museum and a member of the Age Friendly Museums Network, discussed how museums can respond to the cultural shift created by an ageing population.

What I liked was Phillips’ idea around normalising ageing. Since we all age, she argued that museums should play a role in countering negative perspectives around ageing and help people embrace the aging process.
 
Maggie Appleton, the chief executive of the Royal Air Force Museum and an MA board member, closed the day by speaking about the great work museums are already doing to change the lives of the audiences they serve.  She also kicked off the next phase of the MA’s Museums Change Lives programme.

Tonya Nelson is the head of museums and collections, at UCL @museumhunter

The MA will be holding a second Future of Museums one-day conference in 2018

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