What makes a group of people instantly feel like a place is “for them” when they walk through the door? What if this group of people is millennials—young adults 18 to 34? These are the questions I sought to answer in my research project and study trip as a grad intern at the Getty Museum.

I love museums. My brother (a millennial, like me) doesn’t. To him, they’re outdated institutions for tourists, places where he doesn’t feel like he belongs. He would much rather spend hundreds of dollars to take his young family to Legoland for the day than $15 to expose his kids to art. Granted, Lego characters and fun rides are always relevant to children, but so are history, art, and culture. So a personal question I set out to answer is: Is the art museum for my brother? If not, what would a museum that really is “for him” look and sound like?

What I Did

I observed several museums, digitally and in person, and interviewed staff about their efforts to engage millennials—and whether or not they thought it was worth specifically reaching out to this demographic. I also observed and spoke to staff at several non-museum organizations, including for-profit companies, asking them the same. In total, I interviewed staff at 14 organizations and did fly-on-the-wall observations on seven more. The institutions were mostly based in Los Angeles, New York City, or the San Francisco Bay Area.

Why Engage Millennials?

From a business and numbers point of view, millennials are the nation’s largest generation. They’re also the most connected of the adult generations, with the widest reach in information sharing. To ignore this group would be to ignore a large portion of the public.

Many museum staff I spoke to see engagement with this group as part of a strategy to build a lifelong relationship with the visitor. They’re in it for the long haul, and their commitment to better understand this group and make them feel welcome was evident.

Engaging millennials is not about marketing. It’s about operating as a good cultural center in the social ecosystem. Museums are here for the public. They are for everybody. We do our jobs as museum professionals to preserve cultural history and maintain its relevance in society, especially as society changes. If we don’t serve a broad public, our jobs lose meaning and purpose. If there is a perception that museums are not very good at serving and engaging any group of people, then it’s on us who work in museums to either dispel the misconception or change the way we do things.

Three Selfies

55% of millennials have shared a selfie online, says the Pew Research Center. This overachieving Getty grad intern can take three at once. Photo: Sarah Waldorf

4 Key Findings

I learned all sorts of interesting tidbits talking to people in this study. Here are the four that stood out.

1. Engagement with millennials is about more than just digital.

MOMA Dinette

User-uploaded images from MoMA PS1’s M. Wells Dinette Yelp page

While it’s hard to think of millennials without thinking of smartphones and social media, it’s important to remember that those are only methods of communication. Engagement does not stop at the tweet, post, or chat. Visual representation and experience amenities are key components of engaging any group, including 18–34 year olds. When the person arrives, do they see staff, visitors, and volunteers who look like them? Images that feel relatable? Are there other visual cues that convey to this person, “You are important to us”?

As one museum staffperson confided to me, “I wonder about creating a certain online perception of the museum that shows us as very engaging and very much for [this group]. When they get here in person they may not find the same thing and feel it was misleading.”

Here are examples of on-site integration that impressed me:

  • Loft Opera is run completely by people age 18 to 34—all front-of-house employees are representative of this group.
  • The Met Breuer provides Blue Bottle Coffee with comfortable open seating and the best views of the entire place on the top floor.
  • MoMA offers charging stations that combine comfortable seating and lots of electricity ports to make device-using visitors feel welcome to stay longer.
  • The Hammer Museum partners with a UCLA student association as a main source of employees, and tasks these young employees with responsibilities ranging from visitor services and security, to programming and outreach. In fact, millennials are highly visible throughout the space and are directly involved with most of the exhibitions and programs at the Hammer. The result of these efforts all culminate in an on-site visitor experience filled with cues that a millennial can read as a familiar and welcoming space.

These initiatives explicitly communicate that this age group is important to the organization and belongs in its culture. “Digital” conversation is just one piece of the bigger puzzle.

Oktoberfest at The Met Cloisters

Millennials at the museum: The Met and the Bronx Brewery partner up for Oktoberfest at The Met Cloisters and gardens. Image courtesy of The Met on Instagram

2. To make information and objects relevant, we need to speak the language of our visitors.

Do museums speak the language of millennials? Do we know their cues? Do we show up in their native environment, or do we expect them to come to us? Do we know what they care about—and do we care about it too?

Our challenge as museum specialists is not only providing millennial audiences with high-quality information about art, but finding ways to make the art relatable and, in particular, relevant to them.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) recently changed their promotional images to feature diverse young adults. They’re hiring and leveraging younger staff, partnering with influencers, and changing the language they use to actively reach younger audiences—still “smart,” as they described it, but more informal and conversational.

African Gallery at the Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum actively asks for visitors’ ideas to plan this changing display of African art. Photos: Krystal Young

An argument we often hear in the museum world is that contemporary art museums will always be more “relevant” to younger audiences because they show the art of today. But that’s not actually true. As just one example, the Brooklyn Museum does a fantastic job of engaging visitors with their large collection of historic African art, encouraging visitors of all ethnicities to find what interests them. Blank spaces and chalk are provided to allow visitors to categorize, pair, and view the objects according to their own interpretations—and of course, to share on social media.

But as a staffer from The Met put it to me, it’s less important to pursue any specific tactic than it is to “lead with openness” to various visitors and their identities. Relevance is defined by the visitor, not the museum; what’s relevant to you won’t necessarily be relevant to me. Museums make choices about what objects, spaces, and amenities are most relevant to their brand and their visitors. What do these choices say to the visitors who come through the door?

"Danae" at the Getty

Nailed it? With Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë at the Getty Center. Photo: Sarah Waldorf

3. Iterate and use feedback.

To appeal to younger audiences—especially audiences not well represented among organizational decision-makers—museums need to develop new ways of working. Millennials’ needs change quickly. Consumer markets change quickly as well. Rather than guessing what millennials, or any audience group, want, museums can do something even better: iterate.

Iteration allows for flexibility and feedback, which lets you know what’s really needed. As a representative from YouTube told me, “We don’t care to build the perfect product. We just make something ‘only just good enough’, and then put it out to the public live. We’re literally talking about 2.0 the very same day.”

MoMA takes a similar approach—developing a minimum viable product and making it live, then iterating according to public opinion. They have full-time staff devoted to interviewing visitors for feedback on their overall experience, and also focus on specific product feedback within the first few weeks of release, with a commitment to make needed changes within two–six weeks.

4. Engaging new audiences takes leadership support.

Leadership plays a big role in deciding what gets prioritized and what doesn’t. Every initiative I heard about in talking to people for this study needed support from leadership in the form of funding, resources, or at the very least a nod of approval. Public-facing initiatives such as group outreach and engagement are hardly ever the type of thing you can do without permission and ask forgiveness later. And they aren’t cheap.

Some of the organizations I spoke to, including MoMA, The Met, and YouTube, cited specific shifts in their leadership as a turning point for when many engagement projects began getting traction. Let me be clear: I don’t think simply changing leadership is a solution to getting things done. Putting all hopes into a small group of people to make something happen is not only unrealistic, it is irresponsible. But having a supportive leader makes a huge difference.

Open Questions

The organizations I studied and spoke to had a range of experiences and expectations for engaging with millennials. Some were entirely geared toward millennials, from their programming to their staff. Others had few to no specific programs for young adults, aside from occasional music or food events that they hoped would bring in a more hipster crowd. (Of these, some worried that appealing to younger audiences might take resources from their more traditional, over-40 supporters.) Still others were at the outset of a transformation, moving toward greater openness to diversity among their visitors while grappling with how best to attract and retain new audiences without alienating those they already have.

A major theme that emerged from my research was that appealing to millennials may, in fact, improve visitor experience for more than just 18–34-year-olds. Things that young adults expect as a matter of course—a welcoming environment, engaging storytelling, good food and coffee, innovation, free WiFi—are not exclusive to this age group. If museums embrace these “millennial” values, they may well serve everyone that much better.

Recharging at the Getty

Recharger. Photo: Sarah Waldorf