How did you feel when you last visited a museum? Did you feel like the exhibitions were accessible? How much technology was employed? As brilliantly pointed out by Hamish Robinson in April’s edition of Museum’s Journal,
“The key issue is how prepared are our institutions and societies for living in not just an ageing, but aged, world?”¹
Perhaps this thought has been sparked because a large amount of new technology and scientific advancement stands to prolong life, and, although there is a large number of octogenarians who are tech-savvy, many aren’t and for various reasons will not learn these new skills. This is just an observation, but it leads me on to ask what are museum’s doing to accommodate the 80+ visitor.
Sensory and cognitive functions can, and often, diminish in later life. Pair this with an ageing populace, museums are left wondering how much are they truly engaging with their elderly visitors. Whilst features such as interactive screens, virtual reality, and other technologies that require a certain level of sensory engagement are fantastic for those who have grown up with it, it can be alienating for those who haven’t.
So what can we do?
Firstly, there has always be debate and a beady eye kept on the standards of sign usage in order to constantly offer peak accessibility for those who choose to read the history. However, I tend to feel that our generation is, rightly or wrongly so, opting out of reading what they can see and feel. I cannot be the only one that has visited an exhibition on a time limit and later, from the comfort of home, researched the topic myself online. Therefore I often feel that keeping descriptions and short histories black text on white, bold, un-crowded, and with short sentences will often convey information better. Its wonderful to go to a museum and feel they are sharing as much knowledge as possible, yet more is sometimes less. This is even more so when we consider those with concentration difficulties.
Other areas such as lighting can help with understanding. Darker exhibitions can feel claustrophobic and can somewhat suppress the absorption of information when your sight is deteriorating. Plenty of seating is also another feature crucial to encouraging older visitors, having several displays at seating level provides a calmer and more comfortable way to engage with information. And, in terms of technology, those museums with the funding or contacts, could also consider how some use of specialist technology can also help the older generation.
I can propose no immediate solution to this, it is a complex and possibly expensive issue, however I do believe that museums should take advantage of their mixed audience and gather as much generational feedback as possible. How does a family, say a grandchild and a grandparent, react to a single exhibition, did they absorb the same information, if not then why? Striking the right balance will be tricky, trying to create an ageless, but an all catered for space can be done but with plenty of marketing and demographic feedback (which can be a task for visitors and museum staff alike).
¹ Robertson, Hamish, ‘The challenge of preparing for the aged world’ (Museums Journal vol 116 no 4, April 2016)