Sunday, February 20, 2022

Are We at an Inflection Point as a Field?

There’s been a great deal of sports fanfare in Ohio lately. Bengals went to the Super Bowl and then Cleveland hosted the basketball all-star game. I don’t often think about sports, truthfully. But all the sports made me reflect on our own field, oddly. 

AAM has often noted more people go to museums than sporting events. It’s a good stat, and one I like to trot out when speaking to politicians. But I suspect it’s a false number in a way. Museums are open more often than not. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of professional sports, I know that most pro sports teams have shorter seasons. So, numbers-wise, given there are more museums than sports arenas, as there are more museums than Starbucks, there is an easier chance for museums to beat sport. But there is a bigger issue underlying that stat. I’d wonder how that number would look if you omitted field trips. Many museum-goers are there bc someone else has decided it’s educational or important. Student groups are important, and education underlies the raisin d’etre of the field. But as a child who spent a childhood going to pro-sporting events under duress, I can assure you it doesn’t make for a lifelong habit. 

The recent Culture Track study brought up another important statistic. Many Americans look to arts and culture as a source of fun. Now, I’d love to see that same sample rate the types of arts and culture from fun to not fun. I fear museums would not be near the top. Museums often miss fun altogether, because we fear being seen as dumbing down our educational mission. An interesting finding in the same Culture Track study is that respondents believe meeting the needs of new visitors is important even if it means losing old visitors. In order words, change even if people don’t like it. 

This brings me to the Super Bowl. The halftime show was incredibly enjoyable for some. It’s not surprising. Many people watching are the age of the performers. Gen X and Millenials are now 40 percent of the population. But, there was some backlash, as expected. Boomers, particularly, were not thrilled to have this type of music on the Super Bowl. Boomers are about 20 percent of the population. But they remain in the workforce and they hold an outsized amount of power and wealth. For museums, as they look to change, to meet new needs, they will see some of the same criticism from some of the same forces. Change often shows changes in power and that can make people upset. 

In the next few years, the voice and power of the older museum-goers will continue to decrease. Have we made enough impact on the younger generations? Do they see us as the once a year, "good for you" requirement? Or do they see us as an enjoyable place to visit on their own? 

As people have found plenty to keep them busy at home, we need to really step it up to meet the needs of these audiences. We showed we could be fun on digital in these last few years. Will we revert to our old ways, where we expect people to accept our status quo? Or we will meet this moment with change?  

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