Museums need visitors. Anyone who flips through an annual report or glances on a website can attest to that fact. But, how do you get them there?
You entice them, of course. But, how do you do that? I can share how I did that. When I used to run programs, I would try to show “fun” through the publicity photos and in the description of the activities. But, saying something was fun always seemed a signal that the experience was anything but. If you need to say is fun, it probably really isn’t.
How do Americans define fun?
This is a challenging question. Ask your best friend, and you might find you differ in your responses. But, looking at spending trends helps form a picture of how society, as a whole, uses their well-earned leisure money and helps us begin to define fun.
Leisure can be defined as an activity that you choose to do for enjoyment.
Since the 1960’s people are working less, and spending almost 7 extra hours a week on leisure. Similarly, people are spending more money now than they were 50 years ago on leisure. People spend nearly $2500 annually on leisure compared with $850 in 1960. In other words, leisure is a growth proposition.
Americans spend real money in order to engage in leisure. For example, they spent 100 Billion dollars on sporting-related leisure in 2016. They spend more than a third of their discretionary income on restaurants. In 2015, Americans spent an average of $46 per year on arts and culture activities.
According to the American Time Use Survey, on any given weekend (in descending order of time spent), people watch tv, socialize, play sports, relax and think, read, play on the computer, and play games. The range is from 200 minutes of television watching to under 10 for game playing. (Visual breakdowns offer some stark depictions of the relative scale of each activity.)
Expectedly, perhaps, but the childless have more time for leisure. And, despite education-level, people do some type of leisure activity every day. In other words, everyone is doing some regularly that’s fun.
Drilling down a bit, what makes these activities enjoyable?
There’s variation, as well, there is variation in people. Some are of these activities are individual and others are collective. Some are within the home and some are outside. Some are affordable and others have great costs. In other words, fun has a great deal of variation. Fun purveyors might only fit in one of these niches, like books which are solitary. But, many fall into various niches.
What connects these activities? On the whole, they are active and engaging. But, they are also activities where the norms and expectations are clear. Once you learn to read, you don’t need someone to help you engage with a book. Once you make a friend, you don’t need a list of rules on how to talk to them. Going out to a movie needs a ticket, but not a docent/ intercessor. (See Graphics at the end for details on each of these activities.)
What does this have to do with museums?
At a time in history where people have more time for leisure, museums attendance is in decline. This negative growth is really a global phenomenon. In the UK, BBC did a study that found that major art museums (National Gallery and Tate) lost 20% of their British audience in a five-year period up to 2014. The NEA found that museum attendance dropped in the US over last decade.
The competition is steep. People can find plenty of fun at home. As the New York Times wrote in a 2016 article, staying home is the new going out. More than 50 percent of American’s regularly order food in. Television-watching is the most common leisure activity.
In other words, there is a threshold that must be met to entice people out of their houses. And, this where we circle back to the idea of fun. Fun is about being with people and feeling comfortable doing it.
LaPlacaCohen recently released a report, CultureTrack about Arts and Culture participation. The number one motivator for arts and culture participation, a staggering 81%, was “fun.” Over one-third (37%) didn’t see art museums as a cultural experience. (How many art museum people would it as a cultural experience). The Culture Track also helps develop a picture on what types of experiences draw people. And what did they think was fun? They enjoyed experiences that were outside of traditional institutions, like public art. They see cultural experiences as interactive & collective. They want to be engaged rather than just receiving information.
— OPERA America (@OPERAAmerica) October 17, 2017
— Essie Lash (@yo_essie) October 17, 2017
People want leisure that doesn’t require onboarding, that isn’t going to make them feel out of place, and that isn’t hard. They want experiences that engage through content that is real and interesting. In other words, culture shouldn’t be hard; it should be fun.
Why do museums need to work so hard to get people to feel included in their spaces?
Recently, I was chatting with a friend who works at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. This is a museum that has really made an effort to model and act fun in their spaces and programs. She was sharing her successes at serving as an ambassador to community members. She mentioned that the best community ambassador has a certain amount of built-in obsolescence. Once you get people connected to the museum, they don’t need you anymore. On that score she is right. And, I have no doubt that she does a great job.
But, I asked her, and I ask you, what other leisure experience has ambassadors actively trying to get people to see the space as theirs. I mean–is the NFL really working super hard to get people to see that sitting in freezing temperatures, drinking beer with your friends, and yelling at men in tights is fun?
What are we doing wrong?
One big thing is that we fundamentally don’t project “fun”. Think of the ways that we think of our spaces and our exhibition programs. We start with considering scholarly attributes and see how the idea blends the existing museum norms. We don’t start with the visitor.
Now, exhibition folks out there will say that they try to put in a few blockbusters every year. In other words, we look back at things that worked in our paradigms that drew visitors to get more of those same visitors.
This disconnection deals with some fundamental challenges:
- Museums people, personally, often have a rarified or specialized sense of “fun”
- Museums often see fun at odds with scholarship
- Museums see “fun” as being for children
- Museum spaces are meant to serve as both individual and social spaces; the fun norms can be drastically different and oppositional
- Museums don’t make their rules and norms clear so people don’t know how to have fun there
- Museums focus on content-transmission rather than experiences
How can museums be more fun?
This is a billion dollar question (ask the sporting industry). If you manage this, you won’t be crossing your fingers on the blockbusters. You will be drawing new people who are willing to put on pants and leave their couch. You get new people. You will find those people that you are always wondering about (the non-museum-goers.)
And as LaPlacaCohen notes, our potential visitors are “necessitating a reassessment of experiences and services offered.”
You need to:
- First, let’s not fake it. Don’t write fun in any add you write for your museum.
- Spend time understanding what people actually this is fun. This can be going to Yayoi Kusuma but it can also be sitting down with friends. Don’t use yourself as the ruler for fun. Really look into other industries.
- Use the lens of fun as a way to measure the relative value of programs.
- Don’t demean play and fun in your own planning and thinking. Stop using the phrase, just a play space or just for people who want fun.
- Center play in your own practice. Make fun part of your work. People can tell when you are bored.
(Also, why Americans? What about international readers? Well, friends, fun is relative and cultural. While somethings go across many societies, like alcohol, others are highly culture-specific. For example, never seen anyone from England posting about going to their alma mater’s home-coming football came while painted in their team’s colors head to toe.)
Addendum: Breakout on Leisure Activities.