The Anchorage Museum in Alaska is rewriting the narrative of the “North.” They are engaging with and including younger generations and their thoughts, ideas, and voices. The Chief Digital Officer, Doug Adams, gave us a behind the scenes look at how, as an institution, the Anchorage Museum is successfully engaging new audiences with their programs and events.
MH: What has the Anchorage Museum been doing to engage young professionals?
D: I think as far as 20 to 30 year olds go, they require other types of programs. For them, we have been doing a lot of spontaneous programs. We have a whole Visitor Engagement department that looks into trends, and has more of an adult theme to it. We have a traditional Education Department and the way they do business is wonderful, it’s so methodical, and it’s very well planned out. It works. It’s been proven to work through decades of experience. These spontaneous programs are not supposed to replace the traditional way of doing business. Our spontaneous programs are designed to supplement and enhance our delivery. We’re trying to reach that millennial audience, audiences that the traditional approach doesn’t reach. So, it’s an additive process, not a replacement process.
MH: Could you elaborate on “spontaneous programs?”
D: We call these spontaneous programs “pop-up programs.” A pop-up program, to us, is something that is not super planned out in the traditional sense of the museum model. We try lots of different things to see what works, but sometimes the programs are short lived. We try to plan these pop-ups around certain times of year. For example, one day we thought: “Hey, in Alaska in the summertime, it’s really nice outside.” And we have a really beautiful lawn to the side of the museum. We wondered what would happen if we just add some food and some music. What if we just put some sounds and smells out there, and we invite some people to come sit on the grass, and just enjoy the day? All of a sudden, we were overwhelmed with people from downtown. These 20 to 30 year olds saw this as a great place to hang out for lunch. Now it’s become this thing we call “Tuesdays on the Lawn.”
MH: Have you done any other pop-up programming?
D: We did another program around letter writing. We consistently hear from 20 to 30 year olds this romantic notion of years past when people used to hand-write letters. It’s fundamentally gone in our society. So one day, we decided to set up a letter-writing table. Lindsay Garrod, our Visitor Engagement Manager, put up a table and put out some pens. She took out some of the historic letters from our collection, and set them up. Then we just watched what happened. We didn’t announce it. It wasn’t advertised or anything. We found that people actually stopped, and wrote letters. It was incredible to see them get involved! It wasn’t a lot of people, but there was something there. Enough of something to make us want to test it further.
MH: Do you think your museum is effectively reaching this age group?
D: I think we are reaching 20 to 30 year olds. We have our traditional museum approach, which definitely works. Then we have this interactive “pop up” approach, that really resonance with them. We also have a Youth Board of Directors: and we just ask them! We ask them things like “What do you like?” We always go back to that. It’s important to just ask your client what they like. What do they want out of the museum? Why do they come here? If they aren’t here, then what are they doing?”
MH: We talked a bit about Generation Z. Do you see any commonalities?
D: There is a common theme between the millennials and the “digitals.” We’ve learned that it is important to make the museum personal. We think a lot about how to make the museum experience personal for the individuals who are coming in. Traditionally, the museum has always been about a place. I think that there is that shared history. That shared culture. That shared art. That shared science. It is about being human, right? This is part of all of us. This is why we go to museums, to envelop ourselves in this thing that’s bigger than us. We want to be part of it.
MH: What’s the big take away?
D: The bottom line is that we’re trying to make art, history, science and culture relevant to an entirely new generation of people. Again, you’ve got to make it interesting; make it compelling. This idea that you have to make the experience personal comes directly from Dr. Julie Decker, the Executive Director of the museum. How do we make this interesting for you AND also make it interesting for me? I think that’s the billion dollar question right there- the macro side of it. But there is the micro side of it: Where you say, “If I can reach one person or two people, is that enough?” If you have a group of a thousand students come in, and three of them leave completely inspired, is that okay? Personally, I think the answer is a resounding YES.
MH: The Anchorage Museum seems to have an experimental approach. Does this have any impact on internal logistics, or daily museum operations?
D: We have a whole internal dialogue that happens before we even start. We have a ton of ideas that come to the table, and not all of them make it. There are a lot of reasons why an idea might not materialize. Maybe it’s not the right timing, or we don’t have enough personnel, sometimes it’s just not the right season. But, once we find the right idea, we start very small. We simply try it out. Just enough to make sure it is be fun, and there is minimal risk. That’s another thing: you don’t want to experiment with your public, and have it go the wrong way, diminishing their experience.
MH: Do the staff set aside time to reflect on those experiences?
D: Any time we do something, the project team will meet afterward. They’ll discuss what they thought. It’s not empirical data though. It’s conversational. If there’s enough there, we might decide to change it, and move it forward. It is critical to set apart the time to reflect. Anything “spontaneous” actually has a planning model. It might be 6 days instead of 6 months, but there is always planning. Then, you actually have to do it! Afterward we always reflect and discuss what happened, what we learned. If you don’t set aside the time to do that, then I think your chances of success greatly diminish. The other thing we’ve discovered is getting dissimilar viewpoints on the projects – people that view the world differently. They can have the same enthusiasm and energy for the project, but their job roles are so different. It really helps round out your deliverable.
Special thanks to Mike Madeja who helped us write this article.