History Museums

Source: Museum Revolution.

Christy S. Coleman,  Are History Museums ‘Stuck On Stupid?’, Museum Revolution, Inspiration, October 2016

Maybe it sounds a little harsh to say history museums are stuck on stupid, but too many are stuck in pedagogical or operating models that simply don’t work well anymore. For more than a decade, one report after another confirms visitation is declining for most. Unable to stem the downward trends, many have reduced staff and programs, further exacerbating the issue. Among some peers, there is a scramble to devote limited resources to the next best thing – whatever that is.

We gather at conferences and talk ad nauseam about successful ventures and end up in an insanity loop trying to reproduce the next blockbuster, trendy party or whatever. When that modicum of success can’t be successfully duplicated, we scratch our heads swearing never to go down that path again.

Museum professionals are a devoted and optimistic bunch seeking enlightenment about what’s going on with the non-visiting public. Considerable attention has been given to studying demographic shifts and generational characteristics in an attempt to appeal to the latest “It” generation. Gathering data from focus groups and surveys, we plan to exhaustion, hoping to find potential visitors’ sweet spots.

If the data gathered is well done, these efforts may bring upticks in visitation. More often than not, long-term impact is elusive because we fail to recognize that these instruments only capture moments in time not necessarily trends over time. When research is done poorly, lamentations begin about how difficult it is repositioning institutions to better serve the retiring Boomers or indulgent X-ers while preparing for the social Millennials.

In an effort to be forward thinking, many museums have shifted attention to those social Millennials.  Greater infusion of digital technology has been incorporated—as if this is the magic key to innovation in museums. Massive collections are becoming more accessible through online initiatives. Research initiatives, programming and exhibit planning is being crowd-sourced.

We are branding, marketing and doing all manner of audience development, trying desperately to connect. Despite all these laudable efforts, the downward trend continues.

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