Museums, society and research on young people

For the times they are a-changin

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 18.05.2018

It’s an age-old debate. Some people believe that the museum should focus on its functions: collecting, preserving and studying objects. For others, it is the museum’s purpose – its public benefit and impact – that is of prime importance. While there has been a shift towards a more people-oriented museum in recent decades, some museums are still reluctant to engage with communities and share authority. Taking the example of my research on the relationship between young people and museums, I argue that not engaging with citizens is doing museums a great disservice. It is only by listening to communities and exploring how they can make a difference to people’s lives that museums will stay – or become – relevant.

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.1

The International Council of Museums (Icom) is usually the point of reference for discussions about how a museum should be defined. Their definition gives prominence to the museum’s purpose of being “in the service of society and its development”. Museum definitions have evolved over time, adapting to changes in society and the role museums play in that society. There has been an overall shift from function-based to purpose-based definitions, acknowledging that museums do not operate in a vacuum but are embedded in society. Recently, Icom recognised that their current definition does not accurately reflect the times we live in. Therefore, they are developing a new definition that expresses a more equal relationship between museums and the public.2

Today, more than ever, museums need to work with people, rather than for people. In the wake of cultural democracy, decolonisation, participation and inclusion, museums cannot turn away from society. Some campaigns are actively encouraging museums, with the involvement of communities, to make a positive difference to people’s lives; the UK Museums Association’s “Museums Change Lives” campaign is just one example.3 David Fleming, former director of National Museums Liverpool, once argued that “objects are a means to an end, not an end in themselves”.4 With their collections and resources, museums can, for example, inspire, empower and contribute to wellbeing. But to do so, museums and their objects need to be relevant. If they are not, why would people care about them?

Acknowledging, actively engaging with and listening to communities will be key for the future of museums. Above all, their endeavours need to reach beyond the traditional museum-goer: “the public” is also made up of people who do not often visit or do not have museums on their agenda at all. In this sense, it is even more important to direct their efforts at communities that are hard to reach. Young people appear to be a case in point: to museums, they often appear to be fickle, uninterested and difficult to connect with. This is where my research project comes in. Access to culture is a human right5 and museums need to do all they can to make themselves accessible and relevant to many different types of people. My research has explored young people’s perceptions and experiences of museums, which barriers they might face, and what place the museum has (or could have) in their lives. The research has also shed light on the issues of power and representation that lie beneath the relationship between young people and museums.

There is a general tendency to view young people as an undifferentiated group, and the museum is no exception to this. The early stages of my research project revealed that many ideas about young people are based on assumptions and stereotypes: for example, “young people don’t visit museums” or “young people are not interested in culture”. However, research does not support this. Firstly, studies have shown that young people do go to museums, although they attend in smaller or larger numbers according to factors such as the proximity of the museum, their age and the opportunities for participation.6 Secondly, even if, in some cases, few young people visit museums, this is linked to a shift in, rather than an abandonment of, cultural practices. When young people become more autonomous in their leisure choices, they often favour other cultural activities, such as concerts or the cinema. It is worth emphasising that young people choose to do these activities; they are not compelled to do them by their school or their family.7

A research project that explores people’s attitudes and experiences has to reach beyond the museum’s walls – especially if it wants to include the voices of people who never visit. To explore the role that museums play in young people’s lives, I arranged group discussions with young people in several youth clubs (Jugendhaiser) in Luxembourg. These discussions proved to be humbling and enlightening at the same time. Engaging with people outside the realm of museums gave me a wider perspective on the importance – or lack of importance – of museums in their lives. It also allowed me to understand how it feels to step across the threshold of an unfamiliar place. This is not unlike what many young people experience in museums, especially if they have not been before or are not visiting in the safe haven of a school group or the family.

The research revealed that many young people do indeed face a number of threshold fears when visiting museums. Visitors who are unfamiliar with museums are especially likely to encounter them. Imposing architecture, attitudes of museum staff, or simply having to interact with staff can be intimidating. Young people may also have to overcome fears of not understanding or not belonging. Added to this, a visit to a museum can mean having to scale several barriers. The research revealed that although practicalities (such as a lack of transport or money) play a role, cultural barriers appeared to be the most imposing. Young people may not see, for example, their culture (or cultures) reflected in the museums’ collections, exhibitions or communication style. Most young people in the study did not think museums were places for them, but many of them saw some sort of value in museums. They also thought it was possible for museums to appeal to and engage with young people in various ways.

The study found that museums can offer many benefits to young people. For them, museums are places for learning (preferably in an entertaining way that allows them to participate) and for being transported into a different world. There was also a widespread interest in the past. This was especially true when young people could relate the past that they experienced in the museum to the present and to their own lives. In the study, the importance of having a personal connection with the themes addressed by museums was apparent in many ways. For example, a number of young people thought that museums could use their resources to address topical issues they are interested in, such as racism, homophobia and the refugee crisis.

Apart from places for learning, the young people in the study also saw museums as being places that spark their curiosity, creativity and interests. Museums also have the potential to be social spaces that young people can visit with their friends – for example, to see a temporary exhibition or go to a late-night event. The study also revealed that for some young people, museums are places of refuge, where they can take a break and recover from the stress of daily life. This need for the restorative aspect is not necessarily expected of young people. Even if it is not their main reason for visiting, it proves that they, just like everybody else, can use museums for relaxation and to enhance their wellbeing.

Above all, the results of this study reiterate the need to see young people as a diverse group. While they are linked through the historic, social, cultural and political contexts that they live in, they are also individuals with different backgrounds, interests and concerns. The diversity should not be a deterrent to researching and engaging with communities; rather, it should remind us that young people – and people in general – are more than just basic demographic categories in a multiple-choice visitor survey. If museums want to continue to serve society, they need to listen to communities and address society’s needs and concerns. Although we still have a long way to go to achieve more equal relationships between museums and communities, this study on young people shows that such alliances have much potential that is worth investigating and striving for. As Bob Dylan said, “the times they are a-changin”.

1 “Museum Definition,” Icom,

2 Icom, “The Challenge of Revising the Museum Definition,” interview with Jette Sandahl, 27 November 2017,

3 “Museums Change Lives,” Museums Association,

4 David Fleming, “The regeneration game,” Museums Journal (April 1997): 32–33.

5 UN General Assembly, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 217 (III) A (Paris, 1948).

6 Tamara Lemerise, “Les adolescents au musée : enfin des chiffres!,” Publics et musées 15 (1999): 9–29.

7 Julia Bardes and Nathalie Lorentz, “Les sorties culturelles des jeunes de six à 19 ans,” Population et emploi 37 (2009): 1–8.

Laurence Brasseur is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Her thesis, Decentring the museum: researching young people’s perceptions and experiences from outside the institution investigates the relationship between museums and young people with a special focus on issues of power, representation and access. The fieldwork for the project was conducted in youth clubs (Jugendhaiser) in Luxembourg.

Laurence Brasseur
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