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A New Age for Small Museums

Our world has changed drastically in recent years. Today’s younger generation (aka digital natives) have never lived in a world without high-speed internet, smartphones, tablets or social media. Even most adults who do remember the time before technology changed the world cannot now imagine life without it. And these changes have, for better or worse, completely altered the ways we communicate, learn and interact with the world.

As a non-digital native myself, I remember the rise of cell phones and the fall of the pay phone. I remember transitions from typewriters to computers with eight-inch floppy disks, and from there to flash drives and now cloud computing. I remember the wonder of having information at my fingertips using the early Internet. I remember when the only way I could chat with friends was to sit in one spot tethered to a curly cord, but now I can talk wherever I want. I can check in on long-lost friends on Facebook. I can read reviews of restaurants and destinations right before I walk in the door. I don’t have to watch the news – I can just read my Twitter feed. In other words, even though I am not a digital native, my world has been transformed.

So what does all this mean for small museums? Museums still have a vital function in this information age. They hold the the primary sources and the keys to our past. And they can, and should, play a central role in creating a sense of community. But museums must also live in the present, embracing and adapting to changes as they come. We cannot do things the same as we did fifty years ago and expect to create an impact.

There is no “one size fits all” answer to keeping museums relevant, but there are some key points that all museums should consider:

  • Embrace social media and new technology – not as a replacement to one-on-one interaction, but as another tool to enhance engagement and learning opportunities.

  • Think about your role in your community and what audiences want – and think about how different generations learn, interact and access information.

  • Utilize your assets – despite technology, nothing beats seeing the original items in a museum’s collection, provided the story is compelling.

Some of my best personal experiences with museums have been when I have felt a sense of connection, whether through reading a story on social media or seeing something amazing in the collection. Museums have the potential to remind us of who we are and where we came from, and foster a sense of identity and unity that will carry us forward. As long as we stay relevant, the future is bright!

Here are some great resources to tap into:

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