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Museums & diversity: thinking outside the walls of the temple

Barco diversify museum audiences

The theme of this years’ International Museum Day was Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion. The goal was to highlight the potential of museums to create meaningful experiences for people of all origins and backgrounds. But what are some key ways that museums can diversify their audience?

by Barco

Exhibition at the Migration Museum Diversify museum audiences
London’s Migration Museum

If we ask you “who goes to museums?”, you’ll probably think of the same stereotypical image most of us have in mind when answering that question (white, high-educated and middle-class adults). And that image is not far from the truth.

Barco asked an international panel of industry professionals, what can museums do to attract other demographics and diversify their audiences? In this third instalment in a series of blog posts on the future of museums, we’re breaking down the walls of traditional museums and put forward three trends.

The panel for this discussion was Arnold van de Water, partner at Factorr and general manager of the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience for the Van Gogh Museum; Dave Patten, head of new media at The Science Museum, London; global thought leader, speaker, creative strategist, founder and director of Molten Immersive Art, Dorothy Di Stefano and Hilary McVicker, communicatrix at The Elumenati.

Museums as open spaces

If you want to diversify your audience, you could start by trying to diversify your museum space. Expand your offering with stories that are not only relevant to a small subset of the population, but are also inclusive to younger generations, visitors with a different background and other minority groups.

You can do this by introducing temporary exhibitions that are representative of new groups or engage visitors through content with new perspectives. Last year, the British Museum in London, for instance, set-up the “Desire, love, identity” project with trails in the museum that highlight objects that have a connection with LGBTQ history and community.

But also re-using your museum space for other purposes – like after-hours events, workshops or screenings – can be beneficial.

McVicker gives a perfect example of how to diversify the museum audience: “The California Academy of Sciences is especially successful with its NightLife theme nights. People come in to listen to music and have a signature cocktail. And then they see something amazing. After which they come back to the museum with their kids or friends to share the experience.”

These initiatives can attract new audiences who initially may not see the institution as a place for their own interests and help them see the museum as a fun venue.

Fading museum walls

And what if you turn things the other way around? Instead of expecting people to come to your museum, why not bring the museum experience to where the people are?

“The museum walls are fading,” says Van de Water. “We created these intimidating temples, we call museums. And a large number of people don’t go there because they just think it’s not for them. What we should do is move to non-traditional spaces. Presenting an authentic museum experience in a different format and in different locations.”

Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience
Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience

Pop-up museums have really been thriving over the last few years. Mostly because of their Instagram-worthy installations that attract the selfie generation. And traditional museums can certainly learn a thing or two from these experiences to reach new visitors.

Patten agrees that museum experiences will increasingly take place outside the museum walls. He shares that the Science Museum in London is currently also working on an interesting research project on this topic. “The goal is to bring snackable museum experiences with local collections to empty shops in high streets.”

Stay-at-home museums

And finally, when working to diversify the museum audience, why not take the museum experience into people’s homes? As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, cultural venues had to rely on digital and online initiatives to stay in touch with their visitors.

Going online is a great alternative during these confined circumstances. However, the online experience should be more than just a 360° digital replica of the physical structure of your museum.

holy city vr
VR experience, Tower of David Museum

According to Di Stefano, the online experience should not and cannot replace the actual museum visit:

“There’s still a huge difference between watching images of something on your computer and walking into the museum and seeing real-life dinosaur bones, for instance. Instead, online content should complement the in-person experience. A bit more behind-the-scenes.”

In Belgium, for instance, Visit Flanders, the tourism office, decided to introduce the “Stay at Home Museum” initiative. It brings sensational exhibitions to art lovers’ homes with free virtual guided tours by curators of Flanders’ most renowned museums like the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent.

Barco Van Eyck exhibition

You can read more about the balance between online and in real life in the next blog post in this series.

Diversify museum audiences by extending the journey

Van de Water summarizes the discussion: “I see a bright future to engage with a lot of new audiences. There are a lot of opportunities in hybrid solutions; also for museums, exhibiting in the physical museum space and extending the journey on other locations and online.

“It’s not the only way forward, but that’s the beauty of today: there are so many ways forward.”

In last week’s blog, the Barco team explored the rise of corona-proof museum technology.

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Barco designs and develops visualisation products – encompassing the entire visualisation spectrum for attractions, projection mapping, experience centres, museums, planetariums, retail, stadiums and arenas.

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