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Youth Engagement Today: Building Tomorrow’s Audience

Jean M. Franczyk on youth engagement strategies and how to engage today’s audience and anticipate tomorrow’s so that our museums can continue to be vital and vibrant institutions.

If numbers reached were the only measure of audience engagement, one could conclude that we are meeting the mark: Our three museums, The Science Museum, the National Railway Museum and the National Media Museum have 4.4 million visitors a year and nearly all of them report they are satisfied or very satisfied with the experience. Combined, in 2009-10, they reached nearly 517,000 visitors in booked education groups, with the Science Museum alone receiving 378,000 of these visitors. And, collectively, learning teams at our museums delivered facilitated learning sessions to 1,174,985 people, both on-site and off.

But numbers are a crude measure of ‘audience engagement’ in encounters that we design to stretch, challenge and involve our visitors in an active learning experience that is ‘life-enhancing’. We have defined a Life Enhancing Experience (LEE) as a learning experience that is inspiring, engaging and memorable, and lasts longer than the visit itself. We have created a framework that defines and measures whether our exhibitions and programmes fulfil this LEE ambition. The framework recognizes that our role as an ‘informal’ learning institution has significant capacity to build confidence in the subject matter and inspire deeper exploration and understanding.

We are using this framework today to determine whether major projects and programmes deliver on our strategic objective of audience engagement. But will the information and insights we gain today help us in building future audiences that represent a new generation of museum-goers who have positive attitudes toward our institution and its subject matter? We believe it can, but also have concluded that it is also necessary for us to think and work differently with audiences.

As a result, we have taken the first steps in implementing a youth engagement strategy at our museums that aims first to involve young people in content creation that can be enjoyed by all our visitors and, second, to build long-term relationships with young people that will help develop and diversify both the audience and staff of our museums. We would do this by working with a modest number of young people, aged 13 to 19, who would create and deliver content for their peers and audiences at large whilst, amongst themselves, building skill in communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and team-building that increases their competitiveness as potential museum employees. Importantly, it also aims to develop positive attitudes toward our subject matter and our institutions.

This essay will look at our youth engagement strategy and discuss how it works to engage today’s audience and anticipate tomorrow’s so that our museums can continue to be vital and vibrant institutions. In particular, it will look at the role of young people in helping to create the Science Museum’s new Who am I? gallery, which opened in June 2010, and discuss the application of this co-curation model in major projects going forward at each of our museums. The model, and its application within the Who am I? project represents a recognition that there is value in experimenting in a big way with small numbers who, in turn, reach and influence large and diverse audiences whilst simultaneously having a significant impact on internal cultural change.

The Who am I? Youth Engagement Project
The Science Museum’s Youth Engagement Strategy existed before it had a project in which it could be applied. The Science Museum’s Dana Centre had built a significant portfolio of experience in delivering audience-led events and the Museum was eager to apply the successful models from Dana into the Museum as a whole. At the same time, the Museum’s Learning team was seeking new ways of engaging young people in meaningful museum experiences that would, over the longer-term, create new, diverse pools of talent interested in volunteering at the Museum or, eventually, working with us as Explainers, the key front-line learning staff responsible for facilitating learning experiences across a range of galleries in the Museum. The Museum’s planned relaunch of Who am I?, its gallery about contemporary biomedical science, particularly brain science and genetics, created the opportunity to put the youth engagement strategy into practice.

Sponsorship for Who am I? included principal funder, the Wellcome Trust, and major sponsors, GlaxoSmithKline and the Life Technologies Foundation, all of whom were keen to see a youth engagement programme within the project. The Museum agreed that a group of young people would be the first curators for the display case reserved for updatable content and that their work would be on display for six months. This commitment promised to impact the museum, the youth participants and the museum’s visitors. It was real work for the young people, real risk for the museum, and real opportunity for both groups to grow and flex.

By integrating young people’s voices on contemporary science into the Who am I? gallery, the museum was able to fulfil its aspiration of working with audiences on co-curation. For the young people, the museum committed to giving them a voice that would be heard on a major project and, in turn, they expected the young participants to deliver according to the highest professional standards. In addition, the museum expected the experience to build confidence and skill among the participants, as well as a positive attitude toward science, science careers, and the Science Museum.

Alex Tyrell, project leader for Who am I? described the results of the effort this way: “It was absolutely invigorating for the organization. It brought a feeling, a voice to the gallery that we couldn’t have created ourselves. It was a big risk, too, because we had to give up control…..but we were committed to the project and the audience from the beginning so we were able to provide support at each step along the way.”

How it worked
The museum purposefully chose to work with young people outside of school and saw this feature of the programme as vital to its creative identity. Through a partnership with 1A ARTS etc, the Science Museum recruited 14 young people – 9 girls and 5 boys – from across London, aged 13 to 16, and created, with the Westminster Youth Service, an AQA accreditation in exhibition development. Fliers promoting the project promised participants the opportunity to create part of the Who am I? exhibition at the Science Museum whilst learning new skills, including animation, and receiving, upon successful completion of the project, Flip cameras that had been used to create video diaries of the experience. All sessions were held in the Museum’s Dana Centre, where the museum’s own journey in audience-led programming began. The project solidified Dana’s role as the museum’s ‘hothouse’ for innovation in science communication and audience engagement.

Key to the success was the support from 1A ARTS etc who helped begin and sustain relationships with the group. The young people themselves signed on with a commitment to participate in 12 Saturday sessions where they would explore the latest biomedical research, select a topic for their on-gallery display, interview scientists, work with designers and content experts, select objects from the Museum’s collections, create animations, and write labels for their display. They participated in text writing workshops, presented their concept plans to the gallery design team and created personal video documentaries of the project using flip cameras. Staff from the museums explainer and exhibition teams pooled skills and resources to lead the effort.

The result of their work, an exhibition on sleeping and dreaming, is the first of 15 display cases that Who am I? visitors see when they enter the gallery. Everything within this case was selected, written and created by the programme participants. It bears their unique stamp but it is equal to every other case on gallery in its quality standards and presentation.
There were many challenges to this project, beyond even the significant aspiration of learning to co-curate with audience groups. These young people were responsible for creating a professional display yet they had no previous experience with typical project constraints – e.g. time and money that make some ideas impossible or impractical. Nor did they have any depth of knowledge about the subject matter with many expressing an initial affinity that was much stronger with arts than sciences.
While the initial request that the team work with museum objects to create a gallery-based display was at first wholly alien to a group most familiar with texting and gaming, they rose to the challenge and created a display that added richness and variety to this gallery about human identity. They introduced new voices, audience voices, into the interpretation and achieved fresh and unexpected routes into the content that appear to resonate with the wider museum audience.

How well did it work?
Co-curation is not without challenges but in this instance, it achieved a high-quality project that enhanced the gallery as whole and invigorated the Museum. The group brought objects from older collections to life and their choices of contemporary objects led to new acquisitions. By combining digital content with traditional textual, visual and tangible objects, they created an innovative display that opened up fresh and unexpected routes into the content.

An external evaluation of the programme indicated that the experience was highly successful in delivering its goals for young people. The evaluation showed they felt proud of their achievements, were more confident in themselves and acquired new skills, and, because of the project, they expressed a deeper appreciation of science and a warm relationship with the Science Museum.

Specifically, the evaluation showed that the experience was ‘Life-Enhancing’ as it:

• Increased confidence, skill and enjoyment

• Engaged participants in a challenging project that lived up to its promise to integrate their voices into a major exhibition

• Increased the participants’ experience of science and the Science Museum, with attitudes toward science changing markedly and positively

During the evaluation, participants were asked how they felt about science and museums before they joined the project; how they felt about science and museums at the project’s end; and what they thought they had learned through the project.

Brandon: [Before the project] “I always found some types of science interesting but a lot of science is not. Museums seemed to be really boring, too much like school. Now that the project is over, I suddenly see that science is mind-blowing, truly incredible. Museums are also very fun to visit because of the facts you can pick up [and] remember…[they] will always be there to fascinate you again and again….[From the project] I’ve learned deep inside I have a burning love for science, almost all types. I’ve realized there is a lot to museums and that so much information can be accumulated at them.”

Juanita¨ [Before the project] “I thought museums were boring and I didn’t enjoy them at all but now I think the Science Museums is very educative, and interesting and, actually, quite fun. Apart from learning many things [from the project] about science, I learned to work in a team and socialize with all kinds of different people.”
Charlie: [Before the project] “…to be honest, I thought the Science Museum was the place I would go with my school only and not for fun. I now feel that, actually, the Science Museum is a really fun place and I will take any opportunity to go there and have a fun day with my friends and family. I feel the project helped me learn more about science and especially sleeping and dreaming. I really enjoyed it and it inspired me to learn more.”

The core components of this model that can be applied on forward youth engagement projects include:

• Use of a logical, well-planned process that leads to a high-stakes, real outcome

• Agreement on challenging tasks which the participants are responsible for completing whilst receiving all the support necessary to get the work done.

• An institutional commitment to solicit opinions, listen to them and act upon them

• Access to the content is through research conducted by the young people themselves

Additionally, the evaluation also indicated that the following programme characteristics were important to its success:

• The diversity of participants built relationships across age, ethnicity and economic lines.

• Team-building activities supported the social environment in which the work was conducted

• A mix of experiences maintained interest while building skill

• Team leaders – young, kind, and caring – served as role models

• The informal setting in the Dana Centre was free of outside distractions

As part of the gallery launch, participants’ families attended a celebration event, saw video footage from the project, and then headed off to the gallery to see the work their children, siblings, nephews and nieces had created. To a person, the response was one of pride and delight that their young people had created such an incredibly professional installation and that an institution as august as the Science Museum had allowed them to do it.

‘When is the next opportunity,’ asked one participant’s mother, ‘because this has been the experience of a lifetime.’

During the project, the participants also provided advice for the museum about its catering, its shop and its general receptivity to young visitors.

Christelle: “I got to get my view, my opinion, across. I got listened to but normally I wouldn’t get listened to because I’m young. I think young people should have a say in the museum because it helps attract other young people and it helps us get heard and get our ideas across.”

In addition, five of the programme participants returned for a summer stint at the Museum, working with the Young Graduates in Museums and Galleries programme – and proudly boasting ‘ah, you shoulda’ been here for Who am I?’ – in creating and hosting a contemporary science dialogue event on gallery; one participant applied for an explainer job, three petitioned the museum to lower the age of volunteering from 18 to 16 so they could participate, and two parents inquired about further opportunities for work placement or exhibition development for their children. Throughout the summer, reference to the project appeared consistently on participants’ Facebook pages, with video links to their work on gallery and themselves on gallery.

Further evaluation is underway to determine the impact of the programme on families, peers, and visitors to the gallery. There are plans to apply the Youth Engagement Strategy to forward projects at each of our museums, including at the Science Museum, proposed galleries on the history of science and communication; at the Media Museum, a new gallery on the intranet due to open in 2012, and at the National Railway Museum, within the re-interpretation of its Great Hall displays.

One must ask the question of whether it will be worthwhile to work with relatively small groups of young people on co-curation projects and the answer will inevitably be ‘it depends.’ Success requires both commitment to the concept and to risk-taking with audiences. With hundreds of thousands of people seeing their work, and new, diverse pools of talent beginning to successfully apply for jobs at our museums, there is every chance that the long-term positive impact on our institutions will be great, indeed.

Jean M. Franczyk – Deputy Director, Science Museum Group

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