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What do museum audiences need most? More time for play.

National Gallery of Art. (Getty Images)
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When Elizabeth Merritt, head of the Center for the Future of Museums, writes her annual “TrendsWatch” report, technology is usually front and center. Previous issues of the report, which highlights developments that are likely to have a large impact on the museum sector, have covered 3D printing, robots and Big Data. This year’s report, just issued, also includes discussion of augmented and virtual reality, which could lead to major changes in how people experience museums in the next few years. But TrendsWatch 2016 is mostly focused on social changes, and two of the broad trends Merritt identifies — changes to how we work, and how we define and measure happiness — point to yet another social idea that has been haunting the larger cultural sector for years now: leisure.

A transformation in how we work, says Merritt, will affect both how museums employ people and how they may need to change to attract new audiences. “Increasingly we see people who had regular full-time jobs who are now picking up pieces of work,” she says. It’s called “work-life blending,” which in some cases means people may feel they are working all the time, while others, especially younger workers, mix work and play throughout the day and through the whole week. The “work week,” with its two days of downtime on the weekend, is already a thing of the past for many Americans.

And these changes, she says, could well impact the entire work force, not just people who, for example, drive for Uber, or specialists with highly sought-after skills who thrive in the new “gig economy.” Museums may begin to employ more of their staff on a piecemeal basis, whether that’s relying more on guest curators, or contracting specific services only as needed.

A futurist for museums looks at all the possible scenarios

But what about how that affects audiences? When will they come? Does it make sense to charge $25 for admission if your audience is increasingly made up of frenetic work-life blenders who may only want to visit for an hour, here and there? Merritt says that many museums are only now catching up with the need to have more flexible hours, opening earlier or staying open later to attract audiences. But the emergence of the new labor economy has happened so quickly, it has taken many institutions by surprise. “More museums are just now saying we should have alternative hours. Just as they are getting that, the game is changing on them.”

Happiness intersects with this social change, as people begin to think more deeply about whether they are leading fulfilling lives. Institutions, including some governments, have experimented with ways to quantify not just prosperity but a deeper sense of well-being. As the report points out, “Millennials have good instincts when it comes to pursuing happiness, preferring to spend their money on experiences rather than stuff, a strategy that has been shown to be more likely to produce lasting happiness.”

Leisure is the obvious deeper concern that connects both issues. Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts issued a report that surveyed people about why they don’t engage with the arts. Subtitled “Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance,” the report concluded “Lack of time was the most commonly reported barrier to attending the arts.” While everyone was worried about things like access, or cost, or whether they are programming the right things, the elephant in the room was a lack of leisure.

How to view art? Take time, seek silence, and study up.

It’s not the focus of the TrendsWatch report, but Merritt does touch on the question of leisure, citing John Maynard Keynes’s prediction (in 1930) that progress in society would ultimately lead to a 15-hour work week. That obviously didn’t happen. Automation didn’t lead to a society that valued leisure, but simply more increases in efficiency and productivity, and more profits for those who owned the means of production.

“The more we are able to work efficiently the more work we are expected to do,” says Merritt.

The question for museums is whether they can do anything about this. Do they merely adapt to attract people who have less and less time to visit, fighting harder for a more scattered and frantic audience? Or do they address the issue head on?

TrendsWatch is published by the American Alliance of Museums, a service organization that isn’t likely to go to the barricades for shorter work weeks, robust unionization drives or massive redistribution of wealth. But Merritt notes that there are organizations, such as the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, that use their historic connection to progressive values to promote a progressive agenda through programming, exhibitions and alliances with other groups. And, she says, museums can flourish by being attentive to the needs of the communities they serve: “If you become an agent for equity in your community, you become an embedded player,” she says.

But if the lack of leisure is the fundamental problem the museum sector faces, it should address the issue directly, broadly and fearlessly. Indeed, the entire cultural community needs to accept that it makes no sense to obsess about a dwindling audience or the lack of public resources without addressing the underlying issue of leisure, and why, as a society, we have failed to make time for pleasure, learning and self-improvement.

If there’s one coherent message that echoes through the halls of museums devoted to science, technology, art and history, it’s that man has the power both to improve and mess up his world. The current state of affairs is our doing. That power applies to the economy, as well. In their programs and their policies, and in the way they treat their own staff, museums need to focus on the question of leisure and how we can recapture it. The larger humanist and scientific legacy of which museums are the stewards should be placed in service of a simple truth: We govern the economy and can make it serve us better.