Museums: from Appealing to Essential

Sometimes museums get caught up in strategizing how to be attractive (or interesting, or relevant) to their audiences when a more helpful framing of the problem would be to ask what can make them more essential.

What’s the difference?

Imagine a library closure: parents scrambling for expensive school books, job seekers struggling to access their applications, anyone who doesn’t own a computer blocked from checking their email. Devastating, right? Now imagine if your museum was to close–would the impact be as critical? The volume of complaints you can expect to receive reflects your institution’s attractiveness, whereas the gravity of the complaints reflects its essentialness.

Unlike libraries, most museums aren’t inherently essential to their communities. Instead, they focus on attracting visitors in order to compete with other community spaces for attention and revenue. But is it really too ambitious to think that these museums could become essential to their communities if that was their primary goal?

Tips for becoming essential

Connect to local issues. I like to picture a state or regional museum that gets its inspiration from local news. In this example, the newspapers tell us that our county has had a critical shortage of nurses since the pandemic. The regional museum responds by producing an exhibition that investigates the topic–how and why did this problem come to be? Why is it worse in our county than in neighboring ones? What do current and former nurses in the area have to say about the issue? Going beyond what the newspaper coverage could offer, the museum offers artifacts that provide supporting evidence, programming bringing in subject matter experts who speak about the issue from all sides, community organizers who connect and rally visitors to advocate for change, medics who train people on first aid they can do at home to relieve strain on hospital ERs, and so on. The museum has now become the place where anyone can come together to help solve this crisis in their community.

Lean into what makes your take unique. How might a science museum that wants to do an exhibition on climate change think about making it more essential to visitors? The topic itself is essential, but what would make the museum a critical part of the visitor’s engagement with the topic–that is, what can the museum provide for visitors that they can’t already get on the internet or someplace else?

One option would be to offer hands-on learning activities that give personalized feedback. Urban gardening is a great practice for sustainability, but some people will need an in-person tutorial to get started. Most people know they should recycle, but how many feel confident in their ability to sort their recycling correctly? The museum could test visitors’ sorting accuracy via an interactive and give them suggestions for how to improve. Perhaps they could also show a model of what environmental impact each visitor’s specific errors would have over a set period of time if not corrected.

Collaborate with community problem-solvers. As an aficionado of pet rabbits, I once had an opportunity to rethink a petting zoo at a science center. My proposal for the rabbit exhibit included partnering with local animal shelters to house adoptable rabbits in indoor playpens that visitors could enter for supervised one-on-one socialization. There could also be craft activities for visitors to make toys for the rabbits out of recycled paper and cardboard. These minor changes would preserve the function and appeal of the original petting zoo while adding an essential solution to real community problems (uninformed people dump their pets, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems, and shelters get overcrowded and under-resourced in their ability to supply enrichment). Plus the museum would gain a permanent place in the hearts of any adopters who happened to meet their new family member through their experience visiting. Being essential makes you more attractive to visitors, but not necessarily the other way around.

Brown rabbit in a rectangular play pen with clear sides. Playpen has carpeted flooring, a litter box, a hay feeder, and a pet bed.
Wouldn’t you rather visit a rabbit here than in a traditional petting zoo? And it’s better for the bunny. Image courtesy of Blue Clover Rabbitry

So if you haven’t already, try asking yourself of your current project, “How can this help my museum be more essential to its audiences?” I’d love to hear about whether or not it was a helpful exercise for unlocking new ideas.

I know you meant well. It’s time to stop managing unpaid interns.

Unpaid internships often get talked about at the high level – what museums and boards and grant awarders and accreditation orgs and graduate programs and so on should do to put an end to them.

Of course I agree with these sentiments, but this time I want to call upon a different, equally powerful audience to act. If you’re an entry-to-mid level museum worker who trains or manages interns as part of your day-to-day work, this one’s for you.

Here’s what I ask of you:

By this Labor Day, tell your boss that you’re no longer OK with managing unpaid interns.

The time, energy, and resources you have put into developing your interns are real and probably have had real impact. With exposure to your training and network, your interns have honed their talents and perhaps even gone on to get great jobs.

But these individual successes come at indefensible cost to the museum field and every worker in it, including your interns and yourself. This cost can be summed up in two points:

  1. While aspiring workers who can afford to forgo paid jobs for months at a time get ahead in their careers, others–disproportionately people of color–get shut out.
  2. Interns bring knowledge and skills to your museum from their education and prior work experiences. Valuing their abilities at zero lowers the bar for salaries for all your museum’s staff.

Here are some better ways you can help aspiring museum workers start their careers:

  • Help them research paid positions where they can gain transferable skills for museum work, even if outside of museums.
  • When hiring for paid positions, evaluate applicants’ abilities based on transferable skills, even if gained outside of museums.
  • Coach them on improving cover letters, resumes, interviews, and salary negotiations.
  • Connect them to your professional network through email introductions, social media, and low cost community events such as happy hours.
  • Create volunteering opportunities at your museum that people can sustain alongside full time employment at other organizations–max 5 hours per week, flexible schedules.

Have courage and raise this conversation with your boss this summer.

Let me know how it goes.

When Free Admission Fails: Try “Social” Entry Fees?

A Brown Girls Museum Blog post by Amanda Figueroa recently inspired me. In it, Figueroa questions why she gets free museum access with her Harvard student ID. Admission costs are often the nth paper cut for people of color. Privileging visitors who have higher education and elite affiliations, Figueroa observes, raises additional barriers.

Data from museums that have waived their admission fees reveal even more complications. Opposite from their usual intention, free-admission days have been found to attract routine museum audiences instead of underserved ones.

It’s no surprise that eliminating entry fees failed to dismantle other barriers preventing inclusion. Yet I am curious about whether pricing models can be reimagined to engage target audiences better than free days.

Common pricing models promote attendance by favoring social relationships. Children get discounts so that families can afford to visit together. Many museums hope that students receiving discounts will generate buzz and bring their friends. The Art Institute of Chicago’s student membership, for example, includes admission for a guest.

This raises a few questions:

  1. Can cultural organizations make paying, or not paying, for admission a rewarding, social experience?
  2. Can organizations create groupings that target their audiences better than conventional groups (like students)?
  3. Can museums use discounts in a way that entertains individuals, gives them confidence that they and their social groups are wanted, and excites them to involve their groups?

Here are some ideas of what this could look like:

  • “Neighborhood days” with free/discounted admission for residents of certain areas.
  • Free/discounted admission for people with certain traits or stuff (e.g. anyone named “Michael,” anyone who shows a copy of an old family recipe, etc.) and their guests. The Charles M. Schulz Museum, for instance, offers free admission to redheads on Valentine’s Day.
  • Free admission for a raffle winner and half-price admission for up to five guests.
  • Tickets that teachers can award students, and a reward (such as a private tour) for the student’s family when they visit.

As the data about free admission days suggests, revising admission prices will have small, if any, impacts on inclusion. Adjusting such a specific area of institutional practice will not produce organization-wide changes. Where experiential entry fees may help, however, is in shifting mindsets around whom museums involve and how. Cultural organizations now know that extending a free invitation for whomever accepts doesn’t work. Maybe refocusing attention on the relationships underserved patrons have with each other can be a step toward shaping spaces that they can enjoy together.

I want to hear what you think. What do you see as limitations of rethinking admission prices? What can cultural organizations do to make the price of admission more equitable?