/ 15 April 2024

How to get Gen Z off screens and into museums

Everyday Life In Vienna
It is one of the challenges of our times — how to get young people into museums and become more interested in their cultural and historic heritage. (Photo by Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It is one of the challenges of our times — how to get young people into museums and become more interested in their cultural and historic heritage.

Various studies into museum attendance around the world show that museums’ visitors tend to be older than 30. In one study in the United Kingdom there were fewer than 30% falling into the Millennial and Generation Z categories – young people aged 14 to 34. We need to find ways to attract them to museums and heritage sites because they will be the ones to ensure that we preserve these significant places of culture for future generations.  

As Carolin Stranz, of the Museum Barberini in Potsdam in Germany, says, this is the best way to sustain the longevity of museums. “Gen Z is a particularly relevant target group not only for museums, but for all cultural institutions. They are the future of the museum audience and understanding and addressing their needs will become an even greater core task for museums.” 

But how to do this, when most young people spend more than seven hours a day on screen? Many can’t be bothered to leave the house in their free time and are glued to their social media feeds. The way in which the preference of streaming content online has come to dominate the leisure time of young people can be described as the “Netflixification of entertainment”. Why would they leave their homes when they’re able to get highly personalised entertainment channels from anywhere, right at home? 

“If we want people to leave their homes and visit museums, then we need to design experiences that will truly entice them,” says Sabine Lehmann, founder of the African Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions (AAVEA) and chief executive of the consultancy agency Curiositas. 

She suggests that tourist attractions, but specifically museums and cultural heritage sites, need to adapt to cater to the needs of users. 

How to ensure higher involvement with products and services falls in the realm of design thinking. This innovative approach encourages people to challenge their own assumptions about how their products or services are used. It looks at creative solutions and especially human-centred answers to problems. 

Recently, 100 delegates explored this topic in detail at the Reimagining Heritage and Museums Conference. They participated in a design thinking dash facilitated by the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika, where the goal was to rethink museums of the future by putting people’s needs first.  

At the event, Ngaire Blankenberg, curator of the Reimagining Heritage and Museums Conference, highlighted museums’ important role especially in countries with troubled histories such as South Africa. He said, “Museums, archives and spaces like them can heal people. But we cannot have repair without engagement.” 

By placing themselves in the shoes of their users, delegates were able to envision heritage institutions not as static repositories of artefacts, but as dynamic spaces for dialogue, discovery and creativity. In other words, spaces for human connection.  

It is a sad paradox that despite being so technologically adept, 73%  of Gen Z feel alone. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they crave human connection.  Museums and cultural heritage sites could provide a space for it.  

There are examples of initiatives where such ideas have been explored with some measure of success. First Thursdays take place in the Cape Town inner city once a month. Galleries and museums open their doors, sell drinks and play music. Many young people and children with parents attend the events. They also bring in revenue and energise the city’s centre.  

Some barriers to getting young people into museums are expensive ticket prices, inconvenient opening hours and specific exhibition content.Reducing entry costs and hosting after-hours events are good starting points — but they’re only worthwhile if they end up bringing more people in. Shifting the model from spectatorship to human-centred participation is a necessity if museums want to attract Gen Z. 

 If we are to reimagine museum spaces, we should ask ourselves how a particular space can help to build relationships between people. Does it frame people as spectators who want to see historic artefacts or art or does it attempt to connect with them as individuals? Does it provide an opportunity for people to connect or does it isolate them even more? 

If we want to get young people off their screens, we need to make it interesting and appealing. Sharing adventures and personalising content could make visits more aligned with their interests, enhancing their experience. We need to think about bridging the gap between individualised at-home entertainment and shared out-of-home activities. 

Some research shows that younger generations are interested in virtual and online museum tours and cultural activities. One US study found that 36% of Millennials liked the idea of virtual museums. This would make sense considering their higher comfort level and preferred interaction with virtual spaces. Focusing more on designing and creating such interactive experiences may be the answer to drawing in younger visitors.  

As museum lover and writer Rebecca Carlson says, “There’s a strong case to be made that the museum is more relevant today than it has ever been. From addressing key social issues to transforming how we see the future; the humble museum has the power to reflect and shape our society.” 

Richard Perez is the founding director of Africa’s first school dedicated to Design Thinking, the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at the University of Cape Town. The school and Museum Barberini are supported by the Hasso Plattner Foundation. Through its projects, the foundation aims to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies, support environmental science and conservation, and foster connections through art and culture.