Keeping Ahead of the Curve: Changing Times and Changing Audiences

The United States has always been a country of immigrants. From the first Paleo-Indians who arrived by foot across what would become the Bering Strait 15,000 years ago to modern migrants traveling by car, boat, or plane, America has always been a place of settlement for those seeking a better life. That is not to say that the country has always been welcoming of its immigrant population, however. Generations of Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, and countless others can attest to exclusion, mistreatment, and outright hostility from the country’s establishment, and even today immigration is a hotly contested subject in American politics. What few can dispute, however, is that recent immigrants and their families are becoming an even greater slice of the American pie-and by 2050, increases in Asian- and Hispanic-American populations are expected to help make the United States a minority-majority nation for the first time since the country’s founding.[1]

But what does this mean for museums? The answer, as can be expected, is complicated. As any museum professional can tell you, the traditional visitor to most museums is older, white, and upper class. More importantly, however, visitors are often drawn by a connection to the institution, either culturally or personally. In 2008, for example, nearly 90% of National Park visitors said that they had previously visited another NPS site-a key personal connection to the Parks.[2] Immigrants to the United States obviously lack that personal connection, and the cultural connection may be tenuous at best. The end result is that in most cases, museums struggle to attract immigrant audiences-and if the population trends continue, the resulting drop in visitors could be disastrous.

That’s not to say that museums in the United States are doomed to wither away in the face of declining attendance, of course. Several institutions, such as the Queens Museum of Art, have managed to attract a far more diverse audience than other museums through specially-designed exhibits and programming created with an “institutional dedication to reaching out to the Spanish-speaking population.”[3] Other museums have achieved similar results through comparable efforts, and if anything the future of those institutions is brighter than ever.

For many museums, attracting immigrant audiences will not be easy. By their very definition immigrants are a diverse audience with few (If any) personal or cultural connections to the area, and depending on the specific group could require special accommodations that a museum may not have the resources to provide.  If museums are to survive to serve future generations, however, they must keep well in mind who those future generations may be.

[1] Joel Kotkin, “The Changing Demographics of America”, Smithsonian Magazine, August 2010

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/40th-anniversary/the-changing-demographics-of-america-538284/?no-ist=&page=2

[2] “Connecting People and Parks Committee Report”, National Parks Second Century Commission,

http://www.npca.org/assets/pdf/Committee_People_and_Parks.PDF

[3] Robin Cembalest, “Latin American Art is Booming but Museums Struggle to Attract Latino Audiences,” Fox News Latino, November 9th, 2011

http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/lifestyle/2011/11/07/latin-american-art-is-booming-but-museums-struggle-to-attract-latino-audiences/

2 thoughts on “Keeping Ahead of the Curve: Changing Times and Changing Audiences

  1. annastewart323

    I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this topic as it is one of the upcoming challenges for museums to face now and in the upcoming decades. I think it is fair to term this a challenge- no immigrant situation is the same, no museum is the same, so there cannot be one overarching solution to engage immigrant populations. However, I do think that museums can employ similar methods. Museums should look at their communities and their audiences to determine the stakeholders. Once there is a smaller focus that reflects the community, museum staff should attempt to engage in dialogue with these audiences to determine what it is they are looking for and expecting in a museum visit. Without taking these steps, actions could be detrimental to the overall effort and a waste of finite resources.

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  2. ewcook16

    One of the aspects of immigration and museums that surprises me the most is that so many museums struggle to attract these audiences. The themes of home, family, and identity are universal, and many museums do tap in to these themes. So why, then, do they struggle to attract immigrant audiences? What kinds of outreach (if any) should museums initiate to attract immigrant audiences? I think the Queens Art Museum is on the right track with local immigrant community-specific programming, but there are so many immigrant groups in the U.S., particularly in major urban centers. Are there other programs that have a broader appeal, or is the audience-specific programming the best option?

    I also want to point out a minor disagreement I have with on of the points in this post. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “by 2050, increases in Asian- and Hispanic-American populations are expected to help make the United States a minority-majority nation for the first time since the country’s founding.” That does not necessarily mean that members of those minorities are immigrants; many of their families have lived in the United States for decades or even centuries. I think it is important to distinguish between minority (non-white) populations and immigrant populations, because they have different experiences and needs.

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