Last week, our founder Tom Jaffe and I attended the 2016 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Expo in Washington, D.C. We believe museums play a key role in our culture and we set out for D.C. to see how design and branding could amplify their reach and impact. Here’s what we heard and saw:
The value of a museum today
Many institutions we heard from were asking hard questions of themselves, a key one being what value museums are providing to their audience and community. Many institutions felt the need to change and evolve, driven by factors like technology, changing demographics, race, and economy. For example, how does the Baltimore Museum of Industry, a testament to the industrial heritage of the region, change its narrative to stay relevant in an area that has lost most of its manufacturing jobs?
Diversity and inclusion
In almost every discussion and panel, the notion of race, diversity and cultural inclusion was mentioned. Many museums discussed programs to diversify staff and leadership, but more important, initiatives to examine collections and objects that may be sensitive to some cultures and communities. In Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognizes the history of rock includes the oppression of certain races. As a way to help make everyone in the community feel included, the museum has “Scan Saturday” in which anyone can contribute pieces of Rock and Roll history to the museum’s digital archive.
New and changing audiences
Museums recognize it’s a new world with new generations, new ways to communicate, and new expectations. How do museums create new ways to engage and educate audiences without pandering to them? How is marketing better aligned with exhibitions and curation? How does technology enhance the museum-going experience? How do museums capture “cultural tourists” and become entertainment destinations?
While museums and cultural institutions are navigating a challenging new landscape, there were some key topics we were surprised were not more prominent at the conference.
New ways to engage
Technology has created a multitude of opportunities museums are not taking advantage of. Consumers expect holistic, dynamic, and engaging experiences and these institutions are woefully behind. How do museumgoers share their experience of an exhibit on social media when photography is not allowed? Several billion YouTube videos are watched each day, but video and interactive content are not common in museum settings. Regardless of cultural institutions having volumes of artistic and historical content, few have mobile apps—or websites, for that matter— that allow users to dive deeper.
We didn’t hear the word Millennial very often and hardly at all from presenters. Yes, there’s debate across the board about this youthful group, what they want, think, and even the age range that defines them. In marketing, this group is talked about so often it has become a cliché. The point for museums, however, is there’s an entirely new generation that they need to reach and engage. While cultural institutions are focused on race and diversity, this generation is emerging as the most socially inclusive and open to challenging the status quo.
Museums are working hard to make their collections and facilities accessible to a wider range of people through staff, narratives, and programs. But what about changing the context of how someone experiences a museum? Reaching communities that may not otherwise visit a museum by taking the museum to them. Pop-up exhibits, collections created entirely by the public, redefining what “museum” means. Think of how technology, urbanization, and the interest in physical books have rewritten the role of libraries. It’s up to museums to determine where they fit in today.
Tapping into branding, design and marketing
The biggest absent voice to this year’s meeting was branding, design and marketing. From what we observed, museums and cultural institutions are almost completely isolated as an industry. When asked brand and marketing questions, most museum professionals admitted to being behind and not at all hopeful they could catch up. There is a feeling museums are different in some ways from other industries, and by involving design and marketing agencies they are somehow giving up their control and credibility.
Museums and cultural institutions provide education and entertainment. But just like consumer brands, they are vying for consumers’ time, mindshare and entertainment dollar. Each day they are working to engage existing audiences, reach new ones and deliver compelling experiences. That’s not something different than branding and marketing; it’s the very definition of it.