An experiment for generation Y: "aMUSE: Exhibits Unleashed"

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people posing with album covers

Participation via social media was extra fun with the “album wall” during the music-themed aMUSE in August 2013. Photo credit: St. Catharines Museum

Like many community museums, we’ve had a difficult time encouraging and maintaining a young adult audience. We know that members of generation Y love information, history, museums, and artifacts. We also know that members of generation Y sometimes like to focus more on presentation style, technology, and media than on content. We know that they love an immersive, cultured experience. We also know that they love free stuff. So why has it been such a struggle to get this demographic through the front doors of the museum?

At the St. Catharines Museum, one of the major problems that we have related to visitation from the community is accessibility. We are physically and financially accessible (we offer admission by donation), but unfortunately we are not geographically accessible. Our location along Lock Three of the Welland Canal is great for interpreting the canal’s storied role in the city’s history, but we are geographically removed from the urban core of the community. We are not on a city bus route. We aren’t located where this target demographic, generation Y, is spending its free time. And it’s not about falling off the generation Y radar; we’ve never been on its radar in the first place.

It’s a tricky problem to have. But if they aren’t going to come to us, we’d better go to them. And so the idea of a pop-up museum series presented itself in the form of “aMUSE: Exhibits Unleashed.” The staff and volunteers here at the museum were all in agreement about the need for this type of outreach, even with the logistical nightmare that moving artifacts outside of a controlled museum space presented.

buttons with logo

A fun, non-corporate logo was important to help establish the vibe of the series. Photo credit: St. Catharines Museum

Once we had figured out a model of what we wanted to do (and even then, we had no idea what the final product would look like) everything started happening at the same time. We needed artifacts, but we couldn’t decide what to put on display until we had a space. We couldn’t approach a business owner downtown for a space until we had a better idea of what the event would look like. And so on and so on. Eventually, we found the wonderful Mahtay Café & Lounge located right downtown. Mahtay was already a hub of arts and culture featuring large art exhibits and a wide variety of live music performed nearly every night of the month. As we know from accidentally interrupting students studying while we were bringing in the artifacts, it’s a great study space. And as we know from interrupting many a first date, it’s a great first date space, too. It has fair trade coffee and local craft beers on tap. Chris Lowes, the superhero of an owner, also bent over backwards for us, helping with installations and allowing us to take over the entire space, including moving furniture, to accommodate aMUSE. Mahtay just has a great, already-existing vibe that helped to bring the event to life.

vintage bicycle with notes

Visitors added their bicycle stories to a vintage bicycle in the aMUSE display (not an artifact from the museum’s collection!). Photo credit: St. Catharines Museum

On Saturday, May 23, 2013, we held our first and very successful aMUSE event at Mahtay. To celebrate spring and our city’s love affair with cycling, we themed the first event around our collection of bicycles, one of which was made in St. Catharines by the famous Welland Vale Company (now part of the Co-operative Cycle and Motor Company). Local musicians entertained aMUSE-goers while they perused and chatted with staff and volunteers about the artifacts and their stories. aMUSE was so well received that many inquired as to what artifacts would be featured next. We went back to Mahtay on August 24 and November 25 for two more equally energizing aMUSE events featuring artifacts related to music (including a fully operational 1915 Edison Phonograph) and fashion (featuring a 1958/1959 Christian Dior Evening Dress), respectively.

We think the words of aMUSE-goer Tammi Freeman summarize the series nicely:  “aMUSE is so great because not only can you interact with the artifacts in a space away from the ‘traditional, stuffy museum’ but on top of that, you can drink a beer, hang out with friends and listen to great music with history all around you.”

After a lot of experimenting in event management, artifact handling and care, exhibit design and public programming, we are excited to begin planning our second series for 2014. Series Two will focus on the act of collecting itself. We’ll pull the most interesting, wacky, and thought-provoking artifacts collected in specific years – 2006, 1979, 1962 and 1993 – to put together a bisection of the inner workings of museums and the human impulse to collect, all the while sharing the unique stories of the community with the generation that will be responsible for these items and stories in the years to come.

For more information on the aMUSE series, check out our website or visit our Facebook page for the social media content related to the events.  Or to chat more about the social-museum model, contact the museum at [email protected].

~ Adrian Petry, Public Programmer, with Kathleen Powell, Curator/Supervisor of Historical Services and Meredith Leonard, Visitor Services Coordinator, St. Catharines, Museum & Welland Canals Centre, St. Catharines, Ontario.


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