How to Engage Teens at the Museum

Sara shares her thoughts on Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant’s “Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers.” Photo by Nate Pyper

Sara shares her thoughts on Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant’s “Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers.” Photo by Nate Pyper

How do art museums engage teenagers? We offer a number of internships at the Milwaukee Art Museum for teens, but for most students, their first (and sometimes only) exposure to the Museum is through a school field trip. In collaboration with our docent corps, we asked the students themselves how to engage teenagers in the galleries. If you’re curious about what teens said and how we’ve used their suggestions, read on!

In summer 2012, a group of fourteen teen interns teamed up with ten docents to delve deep into what can make a school tour successful and engaging. They worked to jointly share ideas and troubleshoot concerns. The session was such a hit for both groups that we decided to bring back five of those students in the fall to share their thoughts with our full docent corps–all 100+ of them!

We taped the dialogue so that we could share the teens’ ideas as faithfully as possible. The video below shows the five summer teen interns in dialogue with our docents. The teens quickly do a check-in/icebreaker with the docents, describe the summer program, and facilitate a Q&A session.

What I found particularly powerful about the teens’ suggestions is that they are not just relevant to teen audiences, but can also be used for younger and older visitors, too. In the spirit of continuing the conversation begun by these young people and our docents, I’d like to offer some of my own take-aways:

  • Take the time to get to know each other (even if the tour is only an hour). Over the summer, I began our sessions with a “check in” activity, inspired by the Milwaukee Writing Project, as a way for us to get to know each other. If you know your audience, you can tailor your tour to their interests from the get-go. As Rosehaydee said in the video, it can bring the group together and set a friendly tone.
  • Be aware of your group–and do what they want to do. Be in tune with your group and their reactions: if something’s not working, move on rather than pressing it.
  • Be yourself. Share your passion, and be friendly and relaxed. As Sensei said, if you are enthusiastic about what you’re discussing, chances are good that your group will respond to your enthusiasm.
  • Museum tours can be intimidating. Teens are aware that docents and educators are extremely knowledgeable; and it’s scary to offer your thoughts in front of not just a docent but also your peers. To support conversation, Steven suggested using clear, simple language (without being patronizing), and Rosehaydee encouraged us to acknowledge student voices, even if they’re not the “right” answer, so teens know they’re being heard.
  • Technology is a tool, not a goal. When asked if museums should use more technology to engage teens, responses were mixed. Yes, technology is cool and lots of teens use it–but not all teens have access, and technology is not always successful or necessary. If the activity can be done equally as well or better in analogue format, it’s probably not worth it to try to use a gadget. But if it’s something that can only be done with technology–like Skyping with an artist or out-of-town group–then take the time to give it a try.
  • Remember that we all learn differently. To combat teen boredom, Rosehaydee suggested calling on specific individuals to get them to pay attention, but Sensei noted that sometimes it can be just as effective to try a pair-share or solitary writing activity. This reminded me that museum educators and docents have a responsibility to provide many different kinds of learning opportunities for our students. We need to know when to support and when to gently challenge them.
  • Respect the group; think of them as family. One of my favorite suggestions from the teens over the summer was for docents to think of the teens as their children or grandchildren. To me, this gets to the heart of working with any visitor that comes into our space: respect them! I believe we staff and docents learn just as much from visitors as visitors learn from us.

I’m glad these young people have reminded us of the steps we can take to achieve that “bigger picture”: a museum experience that is supportive, interesting, and fun. Such experiences help teens–and all visitors–know that museums are places where they can be themselves, connect with peers who also love art, enrich their thinking, or simply take a break from a busy day of school.

Helena discusses Fragonard’s “The Shepherdess” in the Milwaukee Art Museum galleries. Photo by Nate Pyper

Helena discusses Fragonard’s “The Shepherdess” in the Milwaukee Art Museum galleries. Photo by Nate Pyper

Since this talk, docents and education staff often refer back to this experience with the teens. We regularly use check-ins on tours and try to find ways to connect with students and visitors to understand why they’re here at the Museum. It’s inspiring to see how the thoughts of these youth have lived on years later!

Editor’s Note: This post is an adapted version of an essay that originally appeared on ArtMuseumTeaching.com.

Chelsea Emelie Kelly is the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab or this very blog, she oversees and teaches teen programs. Say hello on Twitter @MAM_Chelsea.
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