Why Museums Don’t Suck: The Current State of Teen Engagement

Note: This is NOT Howard Hwang.
Flickr photo by Kaptain Kobold.

This week, one of the contributing authors here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, brought to my attention a recent column from LA Youth written by 15-year-old Howard Hwang who felt compelled to write about his distaste for visiting museums.  His piece entitled “Why museums suck” seems to have already generated an interesting response from the museum community and beyond, so I thought perhaps I would throw this post up and see if, in fact, anything productive could come from this teenager’s rant.  Howard admittedly hates museums, but he recently decided to visit six of them in the LA area anyway and then filed his ‘report.’

So the question presents itself: do museums really suck?

I’m probably not using Howard’s exact language or ideas when I define what it means for a museum to “suck,” but I think many of the reasons for his lack of connection with these institutions are not necessarily new. For him (and he is definitely not alone), museums are boring and not frequently places where teenagers go to have fun and hang out.  But is this entirely true? While Howard’s article seems to provide an opportunity for us museum folk to lament on the perpetual problems museums have engaging teenagers (adding fuel to Howard’s flame), I would rather take this as a moment to shine some light on what museums are doing that doesn’t suck.  I’m certainly not saying that museums are doing everything necessary to engage teen audiences (far from it), but I would rather counter Howard Hwang’s diatribe with some thoughts on “why museums don’t suck.”  And then maybe the conversation can productively refocus on what museums could be doing better to connect with teens like Howard.

So what are some ways that art museums are pushing forward with teen engagement?

It only seems appropriate to begin this look at museum teen programs and offerings by checking out what some of the museums that Howard visited actually offer for teens.  In other words, if Howard had decided to hop on the Internet before his visits, what would he have found about their offerings for he and his friends?

  • Norton Simon Museum: Not sure Howard would have found much at the Norton Simon. They do offer a Teen Art Academy program, but the next session is not being held until December 1st when artist J Michael Walker leads a group of teens through the galleries to examine self-portriature, followed by a workshop in which students create their own self-portraits.  Pretty cool artist to work with, but certainly not a pop-in experience (the workshop asks teens to give up 3 hours spread across 2 days).
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Being one of the largest art museums in the country, it is not surprising that LACMA has a range of teen programs.  But it’s still exciting to see LACMA trying out new ways of bringing in the teen audience.  They offer teen art classes periodically and a free NexGen membership to those 17 and under, but I think Howard would be more interested in their “After Dark” teen night that is free for teens, ONLY for teens, and offers a chance for LA teens to hang out, see art, and have fun.  LACMA also has offered a teen High School Internship Program for several years, which sounds like a great opportunity for interested teens (perhaps not Howard) to learn more about museums and gain in-depth experiences with art and artists.
  • J. Paul Getty Museum: Hmmmm, looks like the main Getty Museum does not offer any programs specifically geared toward teens.  The Getty Villa does have an interesting Teen Apprentice Program and Summer Latin Academy, but I think both sound more suited to Howard’s ‘nerdy’ friend Jennifer than to him (perhaps maybe even too academic for her). But, come on Howard, you can’t beat those views of LA from the Getty.
  • Skirball Cultural Center: The Skirball offers an interesting Teen Corps volunteer program that exposes interested teens to a range of museum jobs and skills. Yet, I think the work that the Skirball has done to rethink its visitor experience and interpretation model has done more to improve its experience for teens than anything else.  Howard seemed to connect to this institution more than any other, likely in large part due to their work to reinvent exhibition design. I also noticed that they installed an exhibit a few years ago on immigration in LA that was told from the perspective of local teenagers — and that would only happen at an institution that seems to truly value teen voices.
Teen Art Lounge at the Walker Art Center. Photo by starfive

Outside of Howard’s tour-de-LA-museums, there are lots of art museums that have developed robust programs to connect in meaningful ways with teenagers.  I wanted to highlight a few of them, but this list is no where near exhaustive.  Almost all art museums these days offer something for teens, from drawing classes and high school art projects to full-blown teen councils, teen-designed websites, parties, internships, etc.  Here are a few of the best that I have learned about over the past several years (please add your favorites by commenting below):

WACTAC: Working to target teen audiences and engagement for more than the past 15 years, the Walker Art Center certainly gets a nod here.  I remember speaking with their education staff a few years ago during a visit I made to Minneapolis, and I was blown away by everything they were doing to attract teen audiences and, more importantly, to listen to teen voices as they programmed and planned.  Their WACTAC (Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council) provides the institution with a dedicated, core group of teenagers who work closely with staff to plan program and events for teens.  Past programs have included teen art exhibitions, printed publications, performances, film screenings, artist talks, and art-making events. They even worked to design the museum’s teen website, which I think is awesome (how many museums let go this much, and open the thinking process to teenagers). The Walker also holds teen art workshops, exhibits the work of area teenage artists, and offers additional internships for this age group.

MoMA Teens: While I have always been a fan of MoMA‘s teen website called Red Studio (which is really quite fantastic, you should check it out), I recently learned more about their other offerings for teenagers. Beyond Red Studio’s teen interviews with artists and online art activities, MoMA offers free classes, film screenings, Teen Night Out events, and other websites designed by and for teens. One, called Pop Art developed in 2009 in conjunction with MoMA’s Youth Advisory Council, seems to be a new way to browse selected work in the collection and share them with friends (and I’ll admit that I spent a bit too much time on the site making my own collections and simply exploring the artworks that popped up on my screen). And if you’ve ever been to MoMA on one of their Free Fridays, you know that they are not having too much trouble attracting young audiences.

Teen Night at the ICA Boston. Photo by believekevin

ICA Teens & the National Convening for Teens in the Arts: The institution that has continued to impress me the most when it comes to teen audiences is the ICA Boston.  Like the Walker and MoMA, they utilize a core Teen Art Council to help them plan events for teenage audiences, such as their upcoming Teen Night in November that merges early hip hop with the imagery of dreams through live music, breakdancing tutorials, and spinning all night from the ICA teen DJ collective (yes, you heard me correct … they have their own DJ collective).  The ICA also runs a program called Fast Forward that brings together teenagers around creating film, video, and new media. Yet above and beyond all of these individual programs, the ICA Boston has worked to pull off its annual National Convenings for Teens in the Arts — an event that was initiated “in response to the lack of opportunity for students and educators to collaboratively discuss the issues, challenges, and possibilities facing the field of contemporary arts education for urban teens” (2011 Education Report). The convening brings together teen arts leaders and museum educators to explore the role museums can play in youth development, teen program advocacy, and experimenting in museums. The ICA has created an Education Report for each of the past events, and these documents are available on their website and totally worth a close look.

This just skims the surface when it comes to teen engagement in museums — notable mentions should also go out to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Youth Insights program, as well as the much smaller but perhaps equally-as-powerful YouthSmart program at the Saint Louis Art Museum that hires Summer Teen Assistants to work closely with education staff and artists as well as lead tours for thousands of youth groups (unfortunately, you can’t find much information at all about this incredible opportunity for teens at SLAM, making it that institution’s best kept secret).

While this wide array of teen councils, parties, and online activities certainly shows that museums are paying attention to teens, I’m still unsure how these types of programs make a difference for the drop-in teen visitor (like Howard).  Have these institutions and others changed their visitor experience due to their close work with teenagers?  Is the remainder of the museum experience simply “business as usual” (which, for Howard and most teens, would mean ‘boring’)?

A Challenge to Museums

So I’m going to wrap-up this post where I started, and let the conversation turn back on museums.  As I mentioned, the link to Howard Hwang’s article came to me via a great colleague and friend, Dana Carlisle Kletcka, who directs education programs at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State (meaning that she is constantly struggling with issues that pertain to the slightly older teen audience). In her email to me, she summed up what many of us museum educators are thinking when we read Howard’s words and reflect back on our own efforts (or lack of effort) to listen to teenagers, open up opportunities for younger voices to be heard in our institutions, and allow for something interesting to happen as teens like Howard walk through the door.  So I’ll give Dana the last word here, and I invite your thoughts and responses below:

“[Howard’s] words certainly made me wonder what museum staff and volunteers can do to respond to his very honest assessment of museums, which is present in a certain portion of the population whether we like it or not…. What I had hoped to do by passing along this article was to stimulate thinking as to how the role of educators in museums–volunteer or not–can mitigate and in fact change such superficial reactions to the museum. What if he had been in a group with a really good docent? What if he had engaged in conversation with the other nameless gallery visitors who challenged his “I could do that” thinking? What if he had been greeted at the door by a friendly adult? What if he had engaged in any type of art-making activity that showed him just how challenging it can be to make something with your hands in concert with your mind?

“I’m certainly not suggesting that we modify our practices to suit one surly 15-year-old. But it is worth pondering how the work that we do is a catalyst for changing such opinions and in fact igniting sparks of intellectual curiosity that will grow in time.”

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

UPDATE: I was lucky enough to speak with the now 26-year-old Howard about his article (actually written in 2001), his thoughts about museums, and what he thinks about all this attention surrounding his article so many years later. Here is the link to my “epilogue” to this post, which includes notes and thoughts from my short but very interesting phone conversation with Howard Hwang: “Epilogue – Why Museums Don’t Suck: Connecting with Howard Hwang”

Teen group drops by for a visit at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.

48 thoughts on “Why Museums Don’t Suck: The Current State of Teen Engagement”

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Mike and Dana! I’m so glad we’re talking about Howard’s article and that you took the opportunity to highlight some great programs. Many museums, I agree, are doing great work to serve teens–at least, in specific programs, such as teen councils or classes, and occasional events, such as teen nights. The questions, I think, come when a teen walks in without the program/group at her/his side–what then? This speaks to Howard’s experiences, and I’d guess his frustrations transcend age groups. Art museums can be intimidating places, whether you’re 15 or 40. It becomes a visitor experience question–what is the best way to connect with all our visitors when they walk through our doors, to help them not only do what they came here to do, but also perhaps challenge them along the way? Dana’s questions offer some initial suggestions, I think, and not only for teenagers.

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two great organizations I’ve worked with recently. First, the amazing NYC Museum Teen Summit, a group founded and run by teen interns at NY-area museums: http://www.museumteensummit.org/ A thoughtful and forward-thinking group of young people running in-person events and even an online magazine on the very subject of this post.

    Second, #TeensInMuseums is an international, just-launched group (full disclosure: of which I’m a founding member), who are working to create a manifesto to support teen programming in museums, as well as highlight great initiatives by youth-serving museums/cultural institutions around the world. The manifesto draft is here (http://bit.ly/RhVXYU), and there’s an active Twitter hashtag at #teensinmuseums to keep this conversation going.

  2. Chelsea, thanks for adding your thoughts — and I’m so glad to have the Museum Teen Summit and Teens In Museums added to the list. I really enjoyed reading the Teens in Museums manifesto — I’d recommend that everyone check that out. It also lists some other institutions forging ahead in this area.

    I also wanted to bring to everyone’s attention a great post from Nina Simon a few years ago on Museum 2.0 that focused on engaging teens in a participatory museum: “Teenagers and Social Participation.” See the link below (and in addition to reading the post, be sure to check out the string of comments that followed):

    Link: http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2010/07/teenagers-and-social-participation.html

  3. Mike and Dana, thanks for sharing this article!

    It was a little surprising to hear such an unvarnished opinion of this writer’s experience in museums… but personally, I welcome the honesty, and I would love to see more essays like this from teenagers (or any museum visitors, really – especially those who aren’t entirely convinced of the value of museums). Hwang’s article also brought back vivid memories of feeling that adults were both assuming that they knew “about teenagers” and assuming that we were an indistinct mass of nearly identical people. I think the first point in the #TeensInMuseums manifesto (Chelsea, looking forward to learning more about this!!!) is so, so, so important – and is the foundation of success for groups like Museum Teen Summit and programs like the Walker’s and the ICA’s. Listening to teenage visitors (especially when followed by giving them a hand in shaping their own programs and offerings) shows respect for their experience and their opinion. The common denominator in situations where teens feel welcomed and engaged by museums seems to be this seemingly obvious – but, I would bet, surprisingly rare – practice of just sitting down with teenagers and talking to them about what they think. Or am I way off base??

    Mike, thanks for pointing out so many great examples of museums succeeding in this mission to serve teen audiences. I look forward to exploring these links more thoroughly!

    1. Kate, I totally agree that the best thing to do is sit down with teens and hear what they think! I hope it’s less rare than we think–it’s just perhaps not talked about as much! To that end, can’t help but share some more links: MoMA’s blog has a number of great posts from the teen perspective as well as videos on how to visit a museum (http://bit.ly/Tlo9tH). I found the videos well done and funny, although there’s still that need to teach the museum rules & regs, which can be disheartening (all those no’s!). I also love this post where Calder Zwicky, MoMA’s teen educator, reflects on how his time as a teen in the Walker’s Teen Art Council shaped his career (http://bit.ly/O5xUj3). And hope it is OK to share some videos I made with my teens this summer, where I asked them about their thoughts on museums, just as you suggested! They had some great ideas for the future of museums in particular: http://bit.ly/PnAyAy

      1. Chelsea, those video reflections from your teens are amazing! Thank you so much for sharing them. We should all do more to document such thoughtful reflections from teenagers.

  4. This all makes me wonder if we are thinking a little too narrowly about what we, as institutions, can be to teens. Are we missing the opportunity by thinking only about how we can make our buildings more accommodating, or make our programming better designed for this group’s needs.

    What if we decided that the best way to serve this audience would be in digital spaces? What if we reached them by giving them our content, by providing them with tools and ideas to build upon? To help them learn and grow their own understanding and to create, in ways that make sense to them, might be the path to changing the way teens think about/connect with/sustain us.

    So, for a moment, let’s think about what we could do for that 15 year old, outside of our architecture, that could make a difference in his life? Can you think of anything?

    1. Darren, I’m interested in seeing what responses folks have to your questions! As a manager of digital learning and teen programs here I’m grappling with answering it myself. I love the idea of giving teens control over an online space (I think the Walker has done this wonderfully, and it’s what we’re working towards with #TeensInMuseums). To me this speaks to the real need for enhancing our collections online, which raises those tricky questions of rights & reproductions. But I also worry, because many of my teens do not have internet at home; some don’t have cell phones (let alone smartphones). Of course, there are libraries/school, but it’s a very different to have time to kill online whenever you want vs. having to actually plan to go use the internet (plus potentially pay for public transportation). That’s not to say we shouldn’t explore what digital teen programs might look like–but it is to say that we can’t forget about the significant population of teens who don’t have access to that arena. It’s a tough one. YOUMedia in Chicago (http://bit.ly/SwkGgs) is working to tackle this as is the Smithsonian ARTLAB+ (http://bit.ly/SwkQED) which I’m sure you know about!

      Mike, what are the non-museum orgs that are doing digital work you mentioned? Would love to hear about them!

      1. Chelsea — a MacArthur Foundation DML project I’m involved with called “Connected Learning” has highlighted some really interesting uses of technology that focus on youth and teen engagement. Of course, YOUmedia is featured prominently, but there are other smaller case studies and personal stories that I think are worth exploring. And the core principles of Connected Learning are awesome and can help us develop a common language through which to discuss these types of projects. I’m actually at a gathering of Connected Learning peeps in Las Vegas in a couple weeks, and I hope to bring them into this conversation (they would have SO much to add).


  5. Darren, this is a very important issue to consider. I know that museums like MoMA and the Tate are trying to create digital experiences for audiences outside the museum, and many of MoMA’s online interactives are geared toward teens. I do know that there are some non-museum organizations that are designing quite powerful learning experiences for teens through new types of digital engagement, and I’d like to see museums get involved in that.

    1. I totally agree. Professionally, I develop and install such exhibits. My experience has been that Museums are often open to doing this, but finding the budget to fund it is hard.

      Creating digital, dynamic exhibits is much more expensive than a static one, but also appeals to a wider audience.

  6. Hey there, just adding an Aussie throw to the convo. Im on the youth committee for the Museum of comntemporary arts australia. Me and my team create a youth event known as generationext, which is primarioy an exclusive afterhours access to the gallery. During this time, which happens 6 times a year, we design activites to enhance thier engagement, supply free catering and have live music played all throughout the gallery. We have found this event quite effective in reaching a significant amount of teens and ultimately encouraging thier intercaction with such spaces. Jump onto the site and look it up, http://www.mca.com.au or flick me a message cody_heller@hotmail.com for more information.

  7. Great thoughts everyone. I’m particularly struck by Michael’s comment that museum “should be made interesting without needing special interest programs.” How do folks go about this sort of indirect versus direct targeting of the teen audience?

    I wonder too, whether changes or measures in a museum that respond to teens might not also make these institutions more appealing across the board. I noticed in Howard Hwang’s article he responded more favorably to the natural history museum, specifically to hands-on and interactive elements. From my own experiences, I know that my 9 year old cousin, me in my 20s, and our fathers and mothers in their 40s, 50 and 60s all love touchables (science demos, raw materials a sculptor might use, replicas of historical items, etc.).

    I agree we should certainly be thinking about innovative and proactive ways to engage teens (I practically lived at the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences when I was in high school, I’d have been over the moon if there were programs or councils I could’ve participated on). But I also believe we should keep the bigger picture in mind; that people not feeling welcomed or interested in museums shouldn’t be looked at in the usual demographical terms: children, teens, young adults, adults, senior; different races, socioeconomic groups and so on. Maybe we should think of people more ‘thematically.’ Those who like digital avenues into the institution, regardless of where they fall in that laundry list of demographics and statistics. Those who like to touch objects or participate. Those who like noisy, high energy environments. Those who prefer quiet and comfy benches. Those who like to enjoy art, history or science while munching a snack (maybe adjacent to the gallery if not in it).

  8. I think there’s a teenager with a great future as a journalist or a stand-up comic. A very good, funny, smartass writer. He could write Young Adult novels – of which I’ve read scores. To find a teenager who is so articulate and entertaining speaks well of his language arts teachers.

    However, as a museum curator of thirty-two years, AND an “old person” with two teenagers in high school, I also feel that efforts to engage teenagers beyond those described are futile and, moreover, a waste of energy.

    Teenagers are, to me, about as relevant an audience to museums as, say, space aliens. My children, up to partway through middle school, were rapt visitors to museums of all sorts, including my own Newark Museum. They believed everything I told them, and let the visual tidal wave that every museum offers just wash over them. Once they really hit the hardcore teen years (mine are now 17 and 18), it was all over.

    When I myself was a teenager, I loved museums. And I know there are some – not very many – teenagers out there who love museums even now, as they are, full of “boring plain paintings” and stumbling old people. Teenagers generally are an impossible audience, because it is their very nature to be slightly inhuman and dismissive of everything that is presented to them by anyone not one of them.

    Engaging teenagers on the ground, in the galleries, and trying to get them to understand your passion about a period or a kind of art or a part of the world might be both effective and gratifying in a situational way. Trying to engage teenagers as if they’re a market share that we’re not getting is the very definition of futility. Wait till they’re in college, when they attain full human rationality. Children and twenty-somethings: those are where the effort will be worthwhile.

  9. Yet another shout out for the WACTAC work out of the Walker. They found a way (invested in finding a way) to actually have teens work with staff to design programming that emerges from and connects with exhibitions and performances in meaningful ways. And that opening of programming process has expanded beyond a relegated teen zone (in real and virtual spaces) to influence the museum’s activities for broader audiences, from tiny tots to academics. Cool beans.

  10. Great comments and conversation everyone! Keep the idea and responses coming! That is what this site is all about.

    I did want to share something cool all the readers of this post. After my original post was published earlier this week, LA Youth sent me a tweet about another article written back in 2010 by 17-year-old Christian Santiago, entitled “Give Museums a Chance.” In this uplifting, well-written piece, Christian writes that “art isn’t just nice to look at, it can also be thought provoking.” After describing several of his own fun, memorable experiences in art museums in Los Angeles, he concludes with a thought on what he feels we can get out of our visits to art museums — “a different way of looking at life.” I’m pasting in the link to Christian’s article below, and I want to thank LA Youth for taking the time to follow-up and engage in this conversation.

    LA Youth: “Give Museums a Chance” – http://www.layouth.com/give-museums-a-chance/

  11. Thanks everyone for all of these great perspectives on the issue! This year we are working to revamp our Teen Advisory Board to be more responsive to the needs of our teens and all of this input has been extraordinarily helpful. The teens here expressed an interest in making more art at the museum, so this year we are talking about social justice art and have asked our TAB members to pick an issue that concerns them and to create an installation piece in the museum that addresses this issue.

    While they are still in the preliminary stages of choosing their subject, it became very obvious from our first meeting that all of our TAB members were very concerned with teens being misunderstood and felt an overwhelming sense of pressure and expectations from older members of society…and perhaps our older museum audiences in particular. And so while I understand why some might feel that teens are not an easy audience to attract and engage at the art museum, I think one of our first tasks is to shift our thinking about teens from being inhuman, irrational space aliens to real people with particular needs and desires. Only then can we begin to design programs and exhibitions that engage them by respecting their voices and concerns.

  12. I couldn’t help but read everyone’s comments, including Mike’s piece, and ask myself throughout “If Howard Hwang were reading all this, would we be enlightening him towards a changed mind on whether museums suck?” I may be too harsh here – but my gut reaction is that we’ve gotten so wrapped up in our own adult definitions of arts, arts education and youth development that we’ve already forgotten about Howard. And why don’t we have a chance of ‘bringing him closer to seeing the world as we do’? Because the responses have, for the most part, been written in the same format (and arguably the same maturity) with which Howard wrote his: listing museums and what may (or may not be) wrong with them is not a dialogue. And assuming that, as arts educators, Howard’s is a voice we want to work hard to engage in dialogue (instead of consider a casualty of targeted audience-development strategies), we need to pause and do two things very carefully (arguably the same skills required for engaging in conversation):

    1) Assess whether his is an opinion that is popular/important enough to take on at the institutional level, and if so,
    2) Genuinely listen to what he has to say and react accordingly.

    What’s really the conversation that Howard’s post has ignited? Let’s not get defensive, here. On a human level, if we choose to engage (and some may not – and that’s fine) we cannot afford to not listen. On a survivalist/logistical level, for all we know Howard could be the next CEO of Bank of America, Facebook or be at the helm of a field that does not exist, but on whose generosity the arts may have to heavily rely. Again, we cannot afford to take a stance of indifference and defensiveness.

    Until we are able to prove Howard wrong – in actions, not in words – we will have to accept his opinions and those of the people we claim to serve.

    1. Alex, I really appreciate your thoughtful questions and comments. All in all, I have very little doubt that Howard Hwang would read my post as well as this follow-up conversation and still think that museums suck. But, for many teens not like Howard, there are art museums across this country (in many of our own communities) in which teens have found comfortable, empowering spaces to express themselves, build friendships, and simply be heard when no one else was willing to listen. Not all museums are listening to the needs of teens, but many are. And it may never get the media attention it deserves, but I do feel that museums have the power to be transformative and change lives. Part of the problem may be that this emerging “social justice” and human-centered element of museums can sometimes conflict with the object-centered, content-focused element of museums (although I think both can work together very well).

      Museums definitely need to be more responsive to the needs of teenagers (and all aspects of their communities), but in writing this post, I did not want to simply fall back on the stereotype of museums as boring, dusty places where objects are stored. Those types of museums still exist, but I feel optimistic about the swath of museums that are truly emerging in the 21st century with some real 21st-century strategies for expanding audiences and enhancing our ability to make meaningful connections with art, We have a lot to learn, but it is important to also acknowledge how far museums have come in recent years. I’d like to think that by the time my son (now 3) becomes a teenager, he will really find a welcoming place in the museums of the future — and perhaps I can have a role in making that a tiny bit more possible.

      1. Dear Mike,

        My Editor-in-Chief at La Youth 11 years ago just forwarded me these forums, and reading all of this has been an experience. I was quite immature and tunnel visioned back then, but seeing that it has caused such a discussion 11 years later, I am quite surprised.

        To keep it short, my opinion of museums now, compared to back then, are entirely different.

        Howard Hwang

        [Check out full notes from Mike Murawski’s conversation with Howard at this link: http://bit.ly/10js0Or ]

  13. A very interesting conversation. On the one hand, we need to engage teens in the arts, but on the other hand, I am less than enthusiastic when I see a trend toward using technology gimmicks — as if we will get teens or Gen Y twentysomethings just because “they all use cell phones and social media.” All research indicates that exposure to an art form by the age of 18 has a strong correlation to engagement later in life. So the motivation is sound in these programs, but I most especially like those responses that get teens into the space and then follows up with solid digital presence. Kudos to those doing after-hours programming in the museum, those using museums as a place to spark creative response, and the like.

    Many thanks for the post.

    Andrew Swensen

  14. Does anyone know of good examples of history or anthropology museums that engage teens, college students and that wonderful 24-38 age range? Most examples and successful programs I’ve read about use art or dinosaurs as the hook. I’m sure there are some great programs going on at other types of museums and as I am exploring ways to involve these audiences I’d like to hear about them.

  15. A great conversation to keep reviving. I have really enjoyed everyone’s insights here.

    Mike, thanks for the shout out to Walker Teen Programs in the article.We are always proud to be part of the ever growing field of art museum-based youth work.

    This whole conversation has really struck a cord in our programs and among the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Councilmembers (WACTAC). Check out the response by Asiya Youngmark, one of this years WACTAC members: http://teens.walkerart.org/2013/01/08/do-museums-suck-a-teens-perspective/#tac

    1. Eli – thanks! For many years, I have thought that the Walker’s teen council is one of the best teen programs in any art museum. Keep up the great work! And this response by Asiya shows how thoughtful WACTAC members can be when it comes to museums. I was so excited that this post created such a deep and long-lasting conversation, and I know it is a topic we’ll be returning to regularly. If you or any of the staff at the Walker would like to contribute in any way, just let me know — I’d be thrilled to include your voices in this site.

  16. I’m feeling a bit sheepish that I’ve only just now seen this conversation, but am fascinated to discover that Howard Hwang didn’t visit us at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) in his tour of local museums. Nor was Howard aware that by 2001 when he wrote his article, his school (Marshall HS) had a history of involvement with us through our teacher professional development and multiple student visit program (http://edu.moca.org/education), periodic museum-taught workshop series in its art department, and individual student participation in our teen program.

    MOCA has one of the oldest teen programs in the country, which I co-coordinated for seven years; I am now the museum’s Director of Education & Visitor Experience. Since 1992, MOCA has offered a learning and work internship program known for the majority of its history as the MOCA Apprenticeship Program. Its diverse teen participants have hosted an annual Teen Night event since 2003, and have worked on an array of public programs, learned about contemporary art, and developed artistically, intellectually, professionally and socially. Now, the Louis Vuitton Young Arts Program continues providing 20 high school students annually with this kind of in-depth, teen-directed experience, and offers hundreds of teens an exclusive (no “old” people!) and fun evening event at the museum conceptualized entirely by their peers. Information on these programs can be found here: http://edu.moca.org/programs/teens.

    In my experience, teens are quite receptive to contemporary art, and the often critical eye it casts on institutions and society, as well as to inquiry-based teaching, which encourages and validates a range of responses and deeper thinking. But perhaps the most important discovery our youth program staff members have made, repeatedly, over the years is how meaningful public engagement is to our teens. They see MOCA as their museum, and they want to open it up for others, to contribute their programming ideas, to make the public feel comfortable, and to be active advocates for art. Involving teens directly and authentically in the work of the museum is for us a key manifestation of MOCA’s educational mission.

    As a final thought, it’s incredibly sad that LA Youth no longer exists to give teen journalists the opportunity to share their thoughts and engage in reportage and discussion about their experiences. Teens matter, and they need to be heard.

  17. Full text from Howard’s original article:

    Why museums suck
    Howard, 15, always hated museums, and visiting six of them didn’t change his mind.
    By Howard Hwang, 15, Marshall HS

    Most museums suck. Really they do. Museums always have that cold feeling. Very adultish and professional, it makes you uncomfortable. And museums are filled with old people. I don’t have anything against old people, but I’ve noticed that when there are old people around, it’s usually boring.

    This summer, as I set out to visit six museums, I dreaded it, but then I’d have a sudden surge of happiness when I remembered that I would be able to bash them in this article. I like making fun of things because I like laughing. When you go to museums, you don’t get to laugh, unless it’s at the stupid paintings and how much they cost. The artist will put some blotches of paint on a canvas, give it some stupid name, and the painting will end up costing around $1 million. I don’t get it. Why do they do stuff like that?
    I could make up a painting with blotches of paint and call it some stupid title like, “Inside the mind of an L.A. Youth writer.” Then I would say some French guy painted it. And BAM!—an easy million dollars. That’s not art. I respect landscape painters, people who paint portraits, and painters who paint anything that looks real, not that modern stuff. They call it modern art, and it should be called crappy art. I know I’m rude, but I don’t care. This is how I feel.

    Phot courtesy Norton Simon Museum
    So here we go: The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The thing I really liked about the Norton Simon was the super-clean bathroom and extra-cold water in the water fountain. But the art—well, what can I say? I saw this one Picasso painting that looked like Sharpie marks and White-Out on cardboard-like paper called “Heart of a Young Girl.” It was so lame. This tour guide came out and she started making fun of it, but then she actually explained how Picasso started a new type of art. He started painting an image from all different perspectives at once, like he’d paint the mouth from below, the eyes from the side, and mix it all up. I really liked that tour guide, plus, she was hot. I tried to take notes, but I was too busy looking at her. Heh. After she explained the painting, I understood it a little more, but I still thought it was wack.
    Then there’s The Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Old people, boring art and lots of benches because old people need to sit a lot. I looked at paintings, thinking about what I was going to eat for lunch. On the sidewalk in front of the museum, I bought a hot dog from a vendor. That juicy dog was the best part of the day. The other good part was the old people bumping into each other. I saw this happen about seven different times. As soon as they bumped, they’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” “No, I’m sorry,” “No, I’m sorry.” It was funny. It sounds mean, but I’m just being honest.
    At the J. Paul Getty museum, when I saw the circular staircases, big windows, towering stone walls and long wooden hallways, I was sure I was going into a fun place. The architecture was so amazing it busted my mind. (Literally. I bumped into a pole. Everyone in the café laughed at me.) The garden was also fresh, with a little stream flowing to a beautiful waterfall. But appearances can be deceiving. With its boring collection of old, plain paintings, this museum was just a waste of land.
    The tour guide talked like an answering machine. “Well-this-is-the-painting-of-a-woman-and-another-woman-and-a-man-and-a-table. They-seem-to-be-drinking-a …” and on and on. Think of an 80-year-old man who could barely walk guiding you around a huge museum. This guy really knew a lot about art, but why should he be a tour guide? He should be a teacher or some other job that doesn’t require much walking. Overall the Getty was like being in a locked room with Oprah talking constantly. I was going to have a hot dog there, but it cost $2.95! What a rip-off! Why is museum food always so expensive?

    The Getty has art of naked people all over the place; naked people on horses, naked men wearing helmets, naked women on rocks, a naked woman with a piece of cloth across her lap—they were pretty graphic sculptures. I don’t get it, why would a naked man wear a protective helmet when he should be protecting something more important? I wouldn’t say it’s bad art, because those artists sculpted pretty good—it’s just boring. Actually, that’s the whole problem with museums—who cares? How many times have you seen a bunch of teens decide to hang out at a museum? Never, unless they’re nerds.
    Actually, my friend Jennifer is an ordinary teen who likes to go online and chat and have fun, but she also likes to go to museums with her mom. I told her she’s a psycho and she told me that some mature teenagers actually have the ability to appreciate art and she smacked me on the head. I told her to shut up, and we both started laughing.
    The Skirball Cultural Center is one of those rare museums that you can never find. Nestled in the mountains with great modern architecture, this museum seems to have it all. It’s not all that big, but the exhibits are quite entertaining. When I came in, I was like dude, there are a lot of old people. But these old people weren’t bumping into each other, they were standing at every corner for like three minutes. That’s how good the exhibits were. The topic of the museum was Jewish history, and they had pictures and various multimedia that were very pleasing to the eyes. This museum was very advanced and every teen should go to see its touching exhibits. Some parts of the museum were really moving like the Holocaust part. I almost cried. (SHHHHHH!!!!!)
    The Gene Autry Museum located near Griffith Park had Western exhibits including artifacts, model towns and memorabilia. It was okay. It wasn’t that great, but I really liked the cold air-conditioning. (It was 95 degrees outside!)
    Overall, I have to say that I still think most museums suck. Every single one should be improved, even the Skirball. You have to make it hands-on and interactive. All you museum people should go over to the Natural History Museum. This is a great museum because it covers so many time periods. I thought it was going to be too kiddish, but it turned out to be really interesting. They show you what early men might have looked like, for example. Museums like these really attract the public.
    I used to ask my history teacher why art was important. She told me that it helps us understand how people expressed themselves in ancient times. I asked why we’d want to know that. She told me to stop asking stupid questions. So I’d be like, how is that a stupid question? Then I would get detention. But it’s not a stupid question, is it?

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