Is digital interpretation an easy win for engaging with teenagers?

Museum Studio’s content team on engaging teenagers. Abby Coombs (Director of Content), Rosie Wanek, Jack Smurthwaite, Amanda Dimmock and Kate Hulme (Senior Content Designers) and Verity Parkin (Junior Content Designer) discuss chasing that elusive museum audience – young people.
April 25, 2024
Reading time
2 minutes 44 seconds

Many museums have teenagers and the under-25s on their list of priority audiences, but all too often it’s assumed that this group are best engaged through digital interaction. We’d challenge that assumption.

For the under-25s, the internet, and all the sophisticated digital world-building that comes with it, is like electricity and running water. It’s just another utility. Just as simply placing a film in a museum setting is not enough – it has to earn its place by being thought-provoking, resonant and different to what we could experience at home – sophisticated digital interaction is not exciting by default to a group that don’t know a world without it.

At its heart, the role of a museum interpretation planner is to understand human needs and look for ways to meet them. It’s an act of empathy and generosity, and we need to be responsive and thoughtful, rather than generalise and make assumptions.

Often, we try to make digital more human by asking people to contribute their own opinions. But if we normally experience digital interaction on our phones where we are comfortable and anonymous, engaging with something publicly can feel much more vulnerable, particularly for young people who are still in the process of understanding their own identity and how that fits into a group dynamic.

So, if technology isn’t an easy win, what is? In focus groups and surveys, what comes up most often with this age group is the desire for a non-judgemental social space and an interest in hands-on workshops, whether those contribute to work skills or hobbies. If you hand a group of younger teenagers a cereal box, glue stick and pair of scissors and ask them to design their perfect museum, you’ll find that those welcoming social spaces get designed in pretty quickly. If you’ve got the luxury of space, adding charging points and separating it from a café where you are required to spend money will make this a truly inviting and much-loved space.

There’s a tendency to assume that teenagers have a blanket interest in certain topics that other generations don’t share so enthusiastically: that they want to know about climate change, democracy and LGBTQ+ rights.  Perhaps that’s because these feel like the pressing issues of our day. But there are plenty of teenagers interested in fossils and pencil drawing, and many over-70s who are passionate about LGBTQ+ rights. They lived through the Stonewall Riots, after all.

But if anything does define the teenage experience, perhaps it’s a desire to understand and establish our own identity. Can a museum activity, however well meant, help? Asking teenagers to sit down and explore their identity in a structured facilitated session may, in fact, be less productive than the more indirect approach - a generous, open-handed invitation to simply inhabit museum spaces on their own terms.  

Museums are no longer exclusively learning environments. They’re also social spaces where we strive to connect with something meaningful and with each other. If you broaden the remit of what a museum is and allow people to use spaces however they want – a genuine, condition-free invitation – then museums stand a good chance of becoming the community hubs we all need.  

When we sat down as a content design team and thought about the museum experiences that were significant to us as teenagers, we cited shocking art performances, wandering aimlessly around the Tate and reading grisly stories at Glasgow Museum. None of this was designed specifically for teenagers, but it helped us understand ourselves a bit better and start to plot out our pretentious, idealistic, self-involved, romantic, emotional selves against a blank space where we could be whatever we wanted to be. And here we all are, working in museum design, so, I suppose, we must have seen something of ourselves there and been inspired to create more of it.  

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