I have witnessed a growing trend in the museum industry to widen the audience base to include teens and adults (and not necessarily adults with young children). All institutions grow through diversifying the groups that they serve and young adults without children are not the traditional science museum audience, so this trend is not surprising. But beyond this, there exists a fundamental drive among many in our field to expand the audience because we truly believe in the value of the information we are entrusted to teach. We choose to work in museums because the scientific content and viewpoint as well as the general approach to displaying that content are personally meaningful to us. In other words, we are adults who love hands-on science and “after all when you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”
But this does not seem to be reflected in our attempt to expand our adult audience. The approach that many institutions have been taking of late is to provide events expressly for adults. These usually involve booze, snacks and a guest speaker who presents on a topic a little too advanced or mature for younger audiences.Such events offer guests a new type of museum experience, which is good. But I believe these will fail at the long term goal of generating adult support for science museums because they are founded on a false idea: adults don’t enjoy hands-on science museums so we need to be something else to get them here.
I like drinks, snacks and small talk as much as the next scientifically literate adult but I can get those at my favorite local bar. What I can’t get at my local bar is an engaging interaction with amazing scientific phenomena. There are more and more adults out there who want the type of hands-on learning experiences that museums are experts at providing. Instead of dressing ourselves up for a night with adults, let’s start providing more exhibits and topics that will engage adult minds.
This perhaps begs the question: if there are so many adults who want museum experiences, why aren’t they going to museums? They aren’t going because we are still lousy at telling adults to go. Museums want adult visitors but are reluctant to shed their family-friendly image and therefore only encourage adults to come for after hours events. When was last time you saw an advertisement for a science museum that predominantly feature adults? The local museum here in Columbus had an excellent commercial a few years back, which featured a whole slew of children standing in front of a colorful background asking science questions. “Why is the sky blue?” “How long ago did dinosaurs live?” The culmination was an invitation to bring all questions big or small to the science museum. It was an inspiring ad and it made my day. But I couldn’t help but notice that none of the curious minds featured in the ad were above the age of 14. There are just as many curious adults watching that ad who don’t know why the sky is blue. But unlike kids, they are embarrassed of their simple questions. Maybe they would be a little less embarrassed if they had a more direct invitation to come and ask their questions, simple or otherwise.