Why do museums bother running events?
By Dean W Veall, on 23 July 2015
Dean Veall here. All museums do them and we here at the Grant Museum did A LOT of them over the last year: events. We ran a rich and diverse programme of events that included an improvised opera performance, a games night, film screenings, a queer takeover, talks and much much more. But why? Why do we and other museums bother running events for an adult audience when visits by this group appear to be continuing to climb? 
As part of the larger annual events programme of 120+ events we run here at UCL Museums, Team Grant have run a staggering 40 events since September 2014 and over the next few weeks I shall be going into a little more detail about some of them here on the blog. Like the time we had academic and drag queen extraordinaire Sharon Husbands take over the Museum; or the time when Head of Science and Technology Studies, Professor Joe Cain wore a kangaroo onesie; or the time we knitted for 12 hours. But I thought I would take a moment to reflect on who has been coming to these events and why do museums like ours run events for this audience?
Who’s been coming?
We had a record breaking number of people attended our events this year with 64% of attendees in the demographic of young adult/young professional 18-35. Based on audience segmentation work by the Arts Council England (admittedly for ‘the arts’ but no such museum data could be found) this demographic can be classified as the “Highly engaged – urban arts eclectic” and the “Sometimes engaged – fun, fashion and friends” . These may be cringe-worthy definitions, I know, and there are obvious flaws with trying to define diverse groups of people into distinct groups based on similar behaviours and needs. However, broadly speaking our main audience for events seems to conform to these characteristics.
The age structure and profile of our events audience in many ways reflects that of London. Both inner and outer London have a younger population than the rest of England and as a proportion of the population there are over twice as many 25-29 year olds than the rest of England . Over the last seven years there has been an explosion of activity aimed at this audience, but why?
Museums at Night
Firstly, a new audience. 18-35 year olds have been treated very much as a new audience for museums and producing event programmes has been a way to engage them. The leading organisation for working with this audience has been The Wellcome Collection, which opened in 2007, explicitly targeting this audience through their provocative exhibitions and events programme.
However, most museums don’t have the luxury afforded to a new museum like the Wellcome Collection, so they’ve embraced the ‘After Hours’ or ‘Lates’ style of opening (because you know, 9am-5pm opening hours is not especially appealing to most 18-35 year olds on account of work).Two museums that have successfully managed to use this programming to their advantage and shift perceptions of themselves has been the Science Museum and The V&A.
Home of the original ‘late’ in 1999, The V&A through their Friday Late (and amazing exhibitions) is navigating the transition from a museum for white old ladies to THE destination museum for the ‘urban arts eclectic’ with participatory design and arts activities. Similarly, the Science Museum is successfully moving from being just for kids to a fun and playful space to explore science through their Science Museums Lates and events like science comedy Punk Science, Silent Discos and Talkaoke.
For museums, the immediate benefit of programming these sort of ‘out of hours’ late events is the profile-raising. Using participants as advocates through word of mouth and social media will raise a museum’s profile far more effectively than institutions potentially could. The ultimate aim being that this audience would engage with other products produced by the museum such as paid for exhibitions or other events.
All about the Money, Money, Money
Secondly, cash. Times are hard for museums with deep cuts to budgets, and around the time of the global financial crash museums started to embrace this audience as a means to make up the shortfall in their budget. The Natural History Museum is a brilliant example of this approach. 18-35 year olds are now a key audience for their public programming through a series of paid for experiences. These include Crime Scene Live, talks, Dinosnores sleepovers, comedy shows and Night Safaris ranging in cost between £15 to £180, which are all regularly sold out. Programming for this (mostly) well paid audience has been pitched very much as a means of supporting some of the important scientific research the museum is involved in. The financial benefit of programming for this audience is very clear.
Well for us, we were early adopters of using events to target 18-35 year olds way back in 2004 and were one of the first museums to embrace film nights. This was mostly because we were off the radar for most audiences, so an events programme was the only way we could develop any audience. Today, however, one of the main purposes of our events programme is to support UCL researchers in communicating with audiences about their work. So, why have we chosen to focus on 18-35 year olds? Well, we haven’t, if I’m honest. The audience that come to our events are not because of work that resulted from a detailed audience development plan but more because of the choices in marketing we’ve made, using social media and online free listings which are used most by this audience group. Because of that our programme has evolved and become responsive to the tastes of this audience with a move away from lecture theatre-based events, (which were poorly attended) to a programme with variety of event formats that include film screenings, talks as well as late openings and performances. So, why do we bother running events? This is a timely question for us here in UCL Museums. Hopefully after I’ve shared some of our events I shall revisit that question and look at the challenges and possibilities for our programme going into the future.
Dean Veall is Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology