It’s not enough to be family-friendly – we need to persuade teenagers that museums are for them too, says Mar Dixon
In recent years, a lot of emphasis has been placed on ensuring young people are not only welcomed but actually encouraged into UK museums and cultural institutions. Almost every venue now has, or is developing, a family scheme with children their main target.
But what about teenagers – a group that could have benefited the most from free museum entry. In reality, they’re the ones who have received the least attention.
Although museums were free, schools and parents didn’t quite know what to do at first with this new resource – only now, thanks to charities like Kids in Museums, are we starting to find the right formula. But are we still missing an opportunity to reach the cross-section of young people aged between 13 and 19?
I recently took part in Takeover Day 2011, where cultural organisations allow children to take over their establishments. Dropping in on two of my local venues in Shropshire and Wolverhampton, I asked college and sixth-form students if they would have visited had their teachers not ‘forced’ them. Sadly, the majority said ‘no’ and their reasons were that they felt they were ‘too thick’, ‘too poor’ or the experience just wasn’t for them.
Marketing seemed to be a major factor: this age group didn’t know about the activities specifically targeted at them or, worse, didn’t even know the museum or gallery existed.
So what can be done to get teenagers visiting museums independently? How can we make them feel museums are for them? Here are some ideas I picked up from talking to teens:
Host informal drop in sessions
Teens would like to take part but with studies, jobs and friends, they don’t want to commit to anything on a weekly basis.
Stop viewing teens as suspect
They don’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable when they come in with their mates. These are young adults, not eight-year-olds.
Ditch the clipboards
Teenagers understand assessment is necessary but would like government and schools to stop making them tick boxes. They can still learn, even if it’s just through exposure.
Look at long-term engagement
Many national museums, such as the Tate and Manchester Museumhave established schemes targeted a this age group in the form of youth boards with more lasting impact and influence than one-off projects.
One of the best working models I have witnessed was at theWolverhampton Art Gallery, which created an Art Forum targeted at 14- to 25-year-olds. The forum is almost entirely run by the participants. They decide what they want to focus on, the media they want to use and the projects they want to get involved with, relating to current exhibitions. They get to work with curators and artists but it’s an informal forum with no pressure to attend every meeting.
The Art Forum does something very important – it brings teenagers into the gallery, but just as important, these young people bring their friends. It gets a whole age group through the door to explore a place they have walked past repeatedly, thinking they weren’t intellectual enough or of the right ‘status’ to enter.
Visit the gallery at any given time and you’ll be guaranteed to see this forgotten group. They’ve even been given an area of white sofas to relax. Did Wolverhampton worry this would be abused? No. They extended the hand of respect to this age group and in return, have received it back.
Targeting teenagers becomes even more important during a recession. Teens are actively looking for inexpensive things to do. Locally, our library has seen an increase in teenage visitors who say: “We can’t afford to rent DVDs and we don’t have access to books elsewhere.” I’m sure these same teens would use museums if they knew they were invited.
Many teenagers were involved in the London riots in August. Would more culture in their lives had stopped them rioting? That’s probably simplistic, but during rioting in Wolverhampton, the art gallery was left untouched, even though places nearby were damaged.
Ensuring children of all ages feel valued and welcomed at museums and other cultural venues is crucial. These teenagers will be the next generation to be elected into office – if we don’t make them appreciate museums now, it might be too late when they are running the country.