The Numbers on the Millennial Museum Visitor

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

April 01, 2020

Recent numbers indicate that millennial museum visitorship is now the largest demographic across all museum visitors. This may be shocking to some, but the numbers are there.

Millennials Have Surpassed the Baby Boomers

If you’re not already aware, in 2020 millennials surpassed baby boomers in several key categories including making up the majority of the workforce. They also surpassed baby boomers as the largest segment of museum visitors. This is particularly interesting as one of the main assumptions about this demographic is that they don’t have an abundance of free time nor disposable income. (More on this later in the post). And the main assumption about baby boomers is that they now (in retirement) have an abundance of free time and disposable income.

What the Numbers Say About Millennials

Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development, has done some incredible work dissecting the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study (and additional IMPACTS data) to extrapolate information on the millennial museum visitor. Per the study, here are the audience attendance percentages for baby boomers and millennials from 2011-2015:

Baby Boomers: 23.8%
Millennials: 28.7%

Baby Boomers: 23.3%
Millennials: 29.2%

Baby Boomers: 23.1%
Millennials: 29.9%

Baby Boomers: 20.7%
Millennials: 30.4%

Baby Boomers: 22.5%
Millennials: 30.9%

Dilenschneider concludes from this data that: 

Millennials make up the largest share of visitors to cultural organizations and the observed trend indicates growing percentages year over year. Millennials aren’t coming. Millennials are here and they are already the largest realized audience visiting cultural organizations.

However, they’re still underrepresented.

If Millennials Have the Highest Attendance Rate, Why are We Worried?

If millennials are already a museum’s largest visitor demographic then what’s there to worry about? That’s an excellent question. 

Dilenschneider explains:

According to the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, only 21.9% of adult millennials visited a cultural organization in 2015. To be merely representative, 27.1% of visitation should be adult millennials. The simple fact of the matter is that cultural organizations are underserving millennials when compared to the U.S. population. (“Underserved” means that participation – be it attendance, enrollment, etc. is less than the representative population.) In other words, cultural organizations are underserving millennial audiences by a factor of nearly 24%.

Millennial visitors are already the majority visitor and their visitorship rate is well below what it should be. There’s something wrong here and when we think about museums and visitor engagement, we need to start with reviewing how well we’re serving this visitor base. Reviewing what the millennial museum visitor wants will be covered in a future post.

The Wrong Reasons Cited for Why Millennial Museum Visitorship is Low

For non-regular museum visitors there exists an assumed narrative that museums are exclusive, elite, unwelcoming, and stuffy. In fact, Elizabeth Merritt of the Center for the Future of Museums is quoted saying: “If museums would just lighten up and not be afraid to be funny and irreverent; that would go a long way toward making them places where people feel they belong.” Merritt isn’t the only one within the museum profession to think so, however, it’s not an accurate descriptor. Museums have been increasingly shifting their practice from static to dynamic display, experimenting with cutting edge technology to deliver immersive experiences, and tailoring exhibit experiences to more readily resonate with the individual.

The More Accurate Reasons for Why Millennial Museum Visitorship is Low

In the survey “Assessing Millennial Engagement in Museum Spaces,” (as referenced in Halee Sommer’s Assessing Millennial Engagement in Museum Spaces) question 8 asks millennial visitors what prevents them from visiting a museum. While we don’t know if “too stodgy” was an option, what we can see are practical reasons creating a barrier to entry. It’s worth noting that factors cited, such as “too expensive” and “lack of transportation”, make up nearly 63% of reasons—and these reasons are real economic barriers to many other millennial life activities in addition to museum attendance.

To read more on the survey numbers and trends analysis I highly recommend you read Sommer’s work.

So, Where Does This Leave Us?

We now definitively know millennials make up the majority of museum visitorship for many museums. We also know that their numbers for attendance are not as high as they need to be in order to maintain even current attendance rates. We know nearly 63% of them face economic barriers to entry, which is non-museum specific. Economic hardship for potential museum membership is not a new problem and there are many programs that serve as examples, such as: once a month free entry, discounted entry, and free museum passes available at public libraries. As museum professionals, we’re used to sparse resources and generating creative solutions. It’s time to put those skills to use to support our millennial museum goers.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, grant writing and the future of museums for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and download your free copy of Rachael’s latest book from Lucidea Press, How to Select, Buy, and Use a Museum CMS


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