Sorry Museums, They Just Aren’t That Into You (Asian Art Museum Case Study)

Renegade Tours
Consulting September 29, 2015 Featured Image

The 1900s were good to museums.

Here is why:

  • massive population growth meant there were more people to fuel the economy;
  • economic growth birthed new industries, including expansion of travel options: railways, affordable cars & highways, and air travel;
  • growth of the middle-class and the “9 to 5”, with the money and flexibility to travel; 

Yes, that is a MASSIVE oversimplification of 100 years of history, but let’s focus on the most important outcome: all those people traveling meant hundreds of millions of museum visits, more than any other recorded period EVER.

And then we hit the 2000s and everything changed.

One of the biggest challenges facing museums is they were built for 1900s audiences and don’t match the style, energy level and attention span of “millennials” (the generation that is coming of work age now). Sorry museums, they just aren’t that into you — what can you do about it?

Some museums are investing millions in new exhibits, crossing their fingers that young people will be more attracted and engaged. And this approach, a bit of a gamble, CAN work. But it turns out there is a much smaller investment that can MASSIVELY increase attendance, no renovations required.

What you need to do is change the story.

The Asian Art Museum of SF — Hot Or Not?

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world, representing over 40 asian countries. There are over 18,000 works of art in the museum’s permanent collection, with some pieces over 6000 years old.

To a museum geek or an Asian Studies student the above passage induces mouth watering anticipation, but to the vast majority of millennials it’s just another collection of old stuff. And this was the problem faced by the museum’s Interpretive Planning Team.

The AAM knows they have a problem. While a spectacular collection, like most art museums their audience is aging; and because of their very specific collection, they struggle to attract a millennial audience. Really, the museum wanted to stay relevant, and in their words, “as audience expectations change, so should the museum”.

Fortunately, the museum also knew the solution — they needed to attract new audiences. Among several strategies they are exploring, they invited Museum Hack to lead a workshop for educators, curators, gallery educators, and marketing professionals. At planning meetings we discussed how we could help their team attract more millennials, including making their events awesome, teaching them how we tell stories about the art pieces, and more. They were into it.

It was time to hack the Asian Art Museum!

Storytelling Workshop: “The 5 Elements of a Hack”

Our work with the Asian Art Museum included two major solutions: improving their events, and training their team with the best practices we’ve developed for museum tours.

One effort the AAM is making to attract a younger audience is to host several dance parties each year — including a live DJ and drinks. They wanted these events to be AWESOME and memorable.

Museum Hack staff created “mini-tours” in the AAM space as an add-on to this event. Remixing our approach to tours with their unique collection, we created dynamic 30-minute experiences with appeal to both new millennial audiences as well at the museum’s standard visitorship. Our unique approach to narratives and storytelling fit brilliantly with their collection, and helped draw guests from the bar and dance floor into the galleries to create truly memorable experiences.

Museum Hack Training with the Asian Art Museum

But we wanted to do more. We wanted to give the AAM team the tools they needed to make EVERY DAY awesome, not just those few party nights.

The second part of our work at the AAM was a workshop called “The 5 Elements of a Hack”, where we teach how to find and tell the fascinating stories behind the artwork.

Museum Hack Harry Consults with the Asian Art Museum

Our workshop started with a 60 minute presentation about storytelling to a larger group open to all staff and attended by members of virtually every department of the museum, from IT to Finance to Visitor Services to Curatorial and Education.

Then a select group of AAM curators and educators as well as volunteer gallery educators joined two senior Museum Hack guides to experience Museum Hack storytelling in the AAM space. The tour included customized activities that connected guests to the collection, content related to the museum’s collections and dynamic tour structuring meant to engage and reengage different types of museum guests. The workshop ended with our 5 Elements of a Hack storytelling process, and then we helped the AAM staff experiment with creating their own stories.

The result? By the end of the workshop, all AAM staff had created and received critiques on a story of an object in their collection, experienced customized games and activities in their space, and seen nearly a dozen examples of Museum Hack’s approach to exploring their galleries. They also received training in our storytelling format, and explored all of the elements that are part of a standard Museum Hack experience.

Asian Art Museum practices Museum Hack training materials

The development of the AAM team members’ own stories was likely the most telling piece – although still rough, the presentations attracted a crowd of interested visitors who responded very positively to the performance. This activity also acted as a cross-pollination opportunity for members of different museum departments to collaborate on storytelling around the objects in their collection and pool their knowledge and skills to create dynamic in-gallery experiences.

“It was really fun”

After the tours, we asked the Head of Education and Interpretation at the Asian Art Museum to record a quick video with us describing the experience.

Here it is

“It was really fun. I think we got a lot of really good ideas. I think it will generate a lot of thinking and creativity, and that’s what I really wanted to happen.”

Mission complete!

Want to Work With Museum Hack to Grow Your Audience?

Asian Art Museum grows audience with Museum Hacks help

The Asian Art Museum worked with us to learn to find and tell the fascinating stories behind their art pieces. You can do the same. Please visit or Audience Development page for more details or just send us a quick email, or call 1-800-210-9676 to start up a conversation. 

written with 💖 by Museum Hack

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