To remain relevant to the public, museums need to become more welcoming to minorities and provide more opportunities to interact with younger people, according to a report from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago. The Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Association of Museums, commissioned the report.
The report, presented May 24 at a meeting of the American Association of Museums, is the culmination of work the association launched in 2008 to determine how the nation's museums of art, science, history and other fields can maintain their popularity in a rapidly changing society.
The study, "Demographic Transformations and the Future of Museums," comes as the federal government completes a new census that is likely to show large increases in immigrant populations in many of the nation's largest cities. At the same time, a new generation of potential museum visitors has grown up tethered to the Internet and social media, which makes their cultural expectations different from those of older museum visitors.
The trends intersect in a variety of ways, making the task of planning for the future more challenging, the report points out.
"Young people live today in a world that is dominated by racial, ethnic and multicultural diversity and more global perspectives," writes Betty Farrell, Director of the Cultural Policy Center, which is a joint venture of the National Opinion Research Center at the University and the University's Harris School of Public Policy Studies. "Cultural organizations that don't reflect the diversity of the social world in their staff, programs, perspectives and the people they attract will seem increasingly anarchistic and uninviting to current and future participants," she writes.
The report suggests how museums can reorganize their programming to appeal to broader audiences and points to examples across the country where museums have been more inclusive and nimble in drawing younger visitors and more diverse groups. For instance:
- The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago worked with Latino and African American communities to produce an exhibition, "The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present," which reached across community boundaries to engage new audiences.
- Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C. mounted a project, "Changing Places: From Black to White to Technicolor," to engage the community in a conversation about local demographic changes through an exhibition, dialogues for teens and adults, public television programming, and an interactive website.
- Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose, Calif. diversified its staff and board membership to include more Latinos and then reached out to the local Vietnamese population, adding Vietnamese signage to its English and Spanish signage.
Currently, the American population is 34 percent minority, but minority group members represent only nine percent of museum visitors. In 25 years, the American population will be nearly divided between non-Hispanic whites and members of minority groups.
The proportion of people who are museum-goers is likely to decrease substantially unless something is done, said Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the AAM's Center for the Future of Museums.
"Within four decades the group that has historically constituted the core audience for museums, non-Hispanic whites, will be a minority of the population," Merritt said. "This paints a troubling picture of the 'probable future,' a future in which, if trends continue in their current grooves, museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public, and museums serve an ever-shrinking fragment of society."
She said a "preferred future" for museums would be one in which users reflect the communities in which they live. "It is a future in which the scientific, historic, artistic and cultural resources which we care for benefit all segments of society," she said.