Hack - chalkMuseums are facing a whole slew of challenges these days: budget cuts, changing exhibit standards, Common Core, interactive spaces,  conservation innovations, changing digital landscapes, social media, and on and on and on. But perhaps one of the biggest challenges directly reflects our longevity – attracting and retaining new museum audiences.

In today’s emerging Experience Economy, patrons are seeking a different museum visit. Think less tour, more adventure. Here in the U.S., new trends in the cultural world are becoming more mainstream: the search for authenticity, self-curation, and collaborative consumption (Culture Track 2014). These trends are led by members of Gen X & Y, those born between 1980 – late 1990s (so-called Millennials!).

Millennials are the largest generation in human history, and they are a force to be reckoned with. Museums must engage them now or lose them (and their LH & Warriorpatronage) later. They support open (read “transparent”) organizations that provide personalized experiences they can share among their online followers (see The Center for the Future of Museum’s (CFM) Trendswatch 2015. Can we satisfy this demand? Can we remain relevant and social while maintaining our obligation to our collections?

As with any new trend, new business models are appearing to help museums tackle this issue. Museum Hack, founded in April 2013, is “a highly interactive, subversive, fun, non-traditional museum tour” company, and they’re reaching that Millennial group in spades. But how do we copy this success within the museum establishment? (If you want to learn more about Museum Hack’s interesting and unique approach to museums, check out founder Nick Gray’s guest post on the CFM Blog. It’s pretty much pure discussion fodder.)

To “hack” is to study the elements of a system so closely that you can manipulate them to create something brand new.

Hacking your museum may be easier than you think. As cliché as it sounds, it’s all about attitude. Are you the expert in your field whose purpose is to educate your visitors about neoclassical artistic impressions or are you a passionate human who loves your museum’s collection? The second is far more marketable to this new audience than the first.  But how do we apply any of this?

Embrace the Excitement: Believe it or not, it’s okay to give your own opinion, make personal connections, and share your own thoughts with your audience. It makes your collection relevant. Passion is contagious.

Open the Space: Open it for fun and craziness and kids and laughter and questions and adventure. The museum is not a temple or a cemetery. It’s not a library with a sour-faced old lady shushing every sneeze (even that’s changing), and people want to be entertained as much as they are educated. Make your galleries a place where this is welcome and, yes, even encouraged.

Scrap the Script (*gasp*): With cell phones and tablets and smartwatches and new technologies every day, people are accustomed to getting information right at their fingertips, and it’s personally tailored to be exactly what they want. This means that scripted, one-size-fits-all tours are no longer adequate. Allow patrons to self-direct their visits and experiences. You don’t always know what they want, so let them tell you.

Give’em What They Want: Millennials seek social interactions to merge their online personality with their IRL (“in real life”) identity. This means questions and conversations. This means embracing technology (selfie-sticks, anyone?). This means encouraging your visitors to commit to and share opinions. Small group sizes, photo stops, and factored self-exploration times are vital to ensuring this.

Millennials may be our biggest challenge these days, but the data proves that once we secure them, they are not only more likely to share their positive experiences, they reach thousands more in that effort by word-of-internet.  Hacking our museum spaces may seem newfangled and not our role as educational institutions, but it is necessary to secure our future.

What about you?

Are you a museum hacker?