Sadiya Akasha on why museums need to lose the ‘cult of curator’ mindset if they want to appeal to the Gen Z demographic. Cultural institutions ready to engage with Gen Z should listen deeply and act collaboratively
Museums have always held a special place in the American cultural zeitgeist. Whether it’s movies ranging from Indiana Jones to “Night At The Museum” to action franchises like “National Treasure” and “The DaVinci Code,” or the literally hundreds of rom-com meet-cutes that always seem to occur at New York City’s Met. But in 2022 how are museums doing when it comes to attracting the next generation of supporters, particularly Gen Z’ers? Does an IRL museum exhibit stand a chance in our current media landscape fueled by social media likes, click-bait news and hot takes delivered faster than the time it takes to swipe.
Surprisingly, museums are doing better than most outside the industry might assume. Gen Z, coming of age during a global pandemic, are considering cultural institutions as a place to spend an afternoon engaging in active learning while socializing. That’s not meant to imply that this demographic views a day at the museum the same as older generations.
Gen Z has an entirely different set of expectations that’s shaped by having grown up in an information-dense world. Not surprisingly, the result is a generation that has learned to be critical of any information presented to them and thoroughly scrutinize every source. But rather than cynical, this generation has actually become both global and critical thinkers and intensely curious, as the plethora of online micro-communities that exist even about the most esoteric subjects clearly suggests. That recognition of this generation as critical thinkers is precisely where museums can exhibit their super power. But you need to communicate with them correctly.
Share Your Agenda
As a researcher, I’ve seen the value of sharing an institution’s agenda with Gen Z audiences first-hand. When institutions authentically seek out their feedback they often forge understanding that builds a deeper connection with this demographic. Don’t be afraid to seek feedback on a new project or approach. When participants realize their feedback is valued there is an immediate connection that when nurtured correctly can grow and be sustained over time. Of course, the secret sauce in all of this is after you’ve built an authentic connection, the next crucial step is to reflect your findings in your final production, which could mean a virtual interactive exhibit, a change in layouts, or a newly commissioned work of art.
“It’s all about building trust with this demographic and the best way to build that trust is through a clear statement of agenda, transparency of the process, and actively lived values. When you deliver with authenticity, exciting things can start to happen”
It’s all about building trust with this demographic and the best way to build that trust is through a clear statement of agenda, transparency of the process, and actively lived values. When you deliver with authenticity, and engage in an ongoing conversation, exciting things can start to happen with your institution and younger demographics.
I can already anticipate your next question: engaging in conversation is easier said than done when you’re talking about the most racially diverse and multicultural generation in the U.S. The demographics have been shifting towards greater diversity for the last few generations with Generation Z being the most diverse generation yet. According to the Pew Research Center 48 percent of GenZ-ers born between 1997 and 2012 belong to a racial or ethnic minority, compared to 39% of Millennials. Their identity-building goes well beyond clear demarcations of race and ethnicity. Constant self-examination is a foundational trait.
That means now is the time for cultural institutions to seriously think about how these demographic shifts will affect your institution’s growth, fundraising strategy, planning and marketing outreach for visitor engagement. Before you do that, it’s important to recognize demographics themselves don’t tell the whole story they once did.
An example of redefining demographics as we think of them became apparent to me recently when we conducted a user study targeting young people (high school and college-age), as well as families with young children (Gen Z and younger). The idea here was to seek out diverse visitors within the target audience to ensure representation and inclusion for non-English speaking communities.
What revealed itself during the interviews was that many of the interviewees who were identified by the museum as POC (people of color) were in fact London-born Gen Z children of immigrant parents for whom the British culture and English language were an inseparable part of their identity. Conversely, several of the interviewees who were listed as ‘White Other’ by the museum were first-generation immigrants themselves from other European nations who learned English as a second language in adulthood.
It is a long past time for cultural institutions to rethink racial demographics due to the lived experiences of Gen Z visitors. Instead, start the conversation by asking how they would like to be identified, and go from there.
Engage Gen Z/Millennials As Co-Collaborators
Given that Gen Z are largely values-driven, they interact with brands when those brand values align with their own. Because of that, cultural institutions need to put their values at the forefront in order to connect and engage with this generation.
“Gen Z are largely values-driven, they interact with brands when those brand values align with their own. Because of that, cultural institutions need to put their values at the forefront in order to connect and engage with this generation”
Consider when the Weisman Art Museum’s student group, along with the Student Advisory Council at the Tang Museum, and the Agents for Creative Action (ACA) of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), convened a virtual roundtable exploring the idea of the ‘museum of the future.’ While the student groups described the role of museums ‘historically, as gatekeepers of knowledge and history,’ the real upshot was that the student groups want to see cultural institutions flatten organizational hierarchies, disengage from the ‘cult of the curator,’ refocus programs on humans rather than objects, and increase access to be more broadly and holistically inclusive. Many institutions are starting to listen. Consider, for example:
• Made By Us is a consortium of 100+ history and civics organizations that are collaborating with young adults to reframe historical events in current, politically-aware ways and support civic participation. It models a different approach of collaborative engagement where institutions have an opportunity to engage directly with members of Gen Z.
• In classic ‘show me, don’t tell me’ fashion, after leading community-based workshops, the Walters Art Museum decided to publish a critical history of their founders, brother William and Henry Walters, and fully acknowledge their “support of the Confederacy; and how their original collections reflect the typical Eurocentric worldview of his past.”
• In academia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President L. Rafael Reif published a letter acknowledging the role that a former MIT president, Francis Amasa Walker, had played in advancing the American reservation system and the complex legacy that this has left behind. To face this history head-on, MIT launched a class for undergraduate students to perform research in this area and based on the students’ findings is continuing the exploration in another new class “The Indigenous History of MIT”.
All of these examples reflect just how deeply Gen Z is driving forward change in every institution that they are deeply engaged with. The resulting changes will set the standard across the museum world as a whole.
My advice to cultural institutions ready to engage with Gen Z is to listen deeply and act collaboratively. Start with a simple push to redefine audience segmentation by asking younger demographics how they would identify themselves. From there, continue partnering to bring focus to the ideas that they are interested in exploring.
This is a pivotal moment for museums and institutions of learning where we reimagine its place in our culture beyond the ‘meet-cute’ but to become more a ‘deep-think’ about issues driving the cultural conversation, leading to new avenues of growth that ultimately drive transformation to the museum of the future.
Co-Founder/Director of Product Development, Sitara Systems
Published 6 January 2022