Working with Young People
Since September I've been working with 15 Yorkshire museums who form the Precious Cargo partnership, developing Yorkshire museums' flagship Cultural Olympaid programme. My role is to support the partners in evaluating their projects, and particularly to focus on the impact on young people of engaging with museums and collections.
As part of that I've talked to a lot of young people (in this context we're talking about the age range 14-24) and the staff who have worked with them. The first thing they told me is that they hate the term 'young people' - I talked about that in a previous blog post. However, since we haven't found a better alternative, they've given me permission to carry on using the hated term. So here, in no particular order, are my tips for working with young people in museums. This list is partial, subjective and by no means exhaustive. I'd be delighted to hear yours.
1. Don’t make assumptions about what young people will be interested in
Once you’re past a certain age (about 30 in my experience) ‘young people’ become alien beings. They seem to have separate interests and a different, unfathomable way of experiencing the world. It’s easy to stereotype young people according to media expectations and assume they need high tech, youth orientated content and special jargon in order to be engaged. It isn’t true. Have faith in your collections, trust your audience, share your passion and let them find their own way. In Yorkshire, our group of young consultants was absolutely transfixed with Whitby Museum where the displays are about as traditional as you could possibly get.
2. Communicate their way
Text messaging and Facebook are necessities if you're to communicate effectively. Set up a separate Facebook profile if you're concerned about privacy, or better still, set up a group for your project so you can communicate with participants without having access to each other's profiles. And be prepared to answer texts at 11pm on a Friday night.
3. Social life is everything
Our young people were hugely motivated by the opportunity to make friends. A consistent factor throughout the evaluation was the value they placed on getting to know other young people they wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to meet. Plan for this in your programming and make sure you structure your sessions so that people can get to know each other. They are far more likely to stay involved with an ongoing programme once they've made good friends.
4. Take them behind the scenes
Throughout my career in museums I’ve noticed how much people love going behind the ‘staff only’ door. Young people are no exception. Take the opportunity to tap into their innate curiosity and make them feel privileged and special by taking them behind the scenes.
5. Take them out
if your budget can stand it, trips to other venues are a great option. Young people often don't have the opportunity or the money to travel and experience different cultural venues. The Yorkshire partners set up a young consultants programme that brought young people from different cities together to visit different museums and advise them on how best to appeal to a young age group. This offered social time, a way of discussing issues in a neutral space and plenty of food for thought for the venues they visited. And who doesn't enjoy being asked what they think about something?
6. Don’t underestimate the appeal of the museum as a workplace
It’s easy to be blasé about the place where you work. But for many young people, whose work experience may have been limited to faceless offices or mundane manual jobs, museums are radically different and fascinating places to work. Simply being in your office will have an appeal to young people. If they have had negative experiences of previous working environments, it could open their eyes to a whole new possibility for how their working life could be.
7. Emphasise the benefits for the future
All the young people we worked with, whatever their background or educational position, were motivated to get involved because the project gave them something for their future. It might be skills, knowledge, confidence or new ambition, but whatever it was, they were clear that working on the project would help them take the next step. The opportunity to gain recognised awards or qualifications, or even simply a certificate from the museum, was important in recognising what they had achieved. It meant they had something to put on a job application or UCAS form and something real to talk about in an interview. As a group we hadn’t appreciated how important this would be for young people and we’ll be using this as a means of attracting other participants from now on.
8. Provide food
Preferably hot, preferably lots of it, with cake to follow. In the words of Sean from Barnsley: “Free grub. The way to a young person’s heart”.
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