Spilling the Tea on Designing Museum Spaces for Teens

The following article is adapted from a presentation I gave to the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG) on December 18, 2019. 

We don’t want teenagers in our museums.

In a 1997 article in The Docent Educator, the museum educator Jean Lisner describes arriving at the Art Institute for a Monet exhibit and coming across a group of teenagers on line with her,

 They pushed and jostled each other, they teased and joked, their voices carried well above the morning rush traffic on Michigan Avenue…. I marveled at their goofiness. What a mixture of self-confidence and self-consciousness wrapped up in low-slung baggy jeans and flannel…

I wondered if this loud, raucous group would (hopefully) rush through the exhibition galleries quickly enough so I could commune with Monet in relative peace.

Even though I had spent the better part of my professional life working with youth in informal settings, I found myself hoping I wouldn’t have to share these teens’ exuberance on my busman’s holiday.

Lisner’s gut reaction is fairly common, even among seasoned museum professionals. Perhaps because teens are viewed as such a challenging audience, Museums often cater to children and adults, but rarely to teenagers. The few museums that cater to teens do so through programming and the small amount of research that has been conducted on adolescents in museums focuses on programs and tours. There is almost no research on how they engage with exhibits. Since museums deprioritize teens in their exhibit design, we know very little about how teens engage with museum spaces. 

So, based on how museums are acting right now, we don’t want teenagers in our museums. 

But, we should want teenagers in our museums.

Contrary to popular opinion, teens aren’t a challenge for museums to overcome, but an opportunity for museums to harness. 

Teens are ripe for engagement in museums because…

  •  Teens have time to spend in museums. U.S. teenagers spend four to eight hours of their day on leisure, more than any other demographic except for retirees. 
  • Teens are looking for public places to hang out, away from the watchful eye of their parents. They spend 1-1.5 hours a day in “public places, such as parks, cafes, movie theaters, and shopping malls, and at somebody else’s home.” Museums are a public place where they could be spending their time. 
  • When people become teenagers, they are, for the first time autonomously deciding how to spend their leisure time. If we get people invested in museums as teens, we’ll keep them as adults. As the  old Jesuit saying goes, “Give me a boy until he’s 12, I’ll give you a Catholic for life.” 

How can we get teens excited about museums? 

If we embrace the messy period of life that is adolescence and designed museums to cater to it, teens might find museums more attractive. 

There are four unique developmental aspects of adolescence that we should design for:

  • Teens are forming their identity.
  • Teens are thrill seekers.
  • Teens are social creatures.
  • Teens don’t give a sh*t.

1. Teens are forming their identities

The teenage years are a time when people figure out who they are and leisure activities are an important part of identity formation. According to psychologist Maria K. Pavlova, teens “seek to engage in ‘personally expressive’ activities that fit with their hidden potentials and are experienced as both challenging and enjoyable….having access to diverse leisure opportunities that are both enjoyable and socially desirable is vital to normative identity development in adolescence.” 

Museums are already bound up with visitors’ identities. Professor of Free-Choice Learning Jonathan Faulk  found that a visitor’s identity is a key factor in determining how they will experience a museum.

However, we can design exhibits to enhance the role of museums in identity development. In the article “Museums as Contexts for Transformative Experiences and Identity Development,” Joanna K. Garner, Avi Kaplan, and Kevin Pugh argue that “exhibit design and development [can be conceived of] as aiming at what we label developmental engagement –

engagement aimed at enhancing the visitor’s self-concept and worldview, regardless of age.” 

Garner, Kaplan, and Pugh present a framework for designing for identity formation/growth

  • First, frame content as an opportunity to try out “new ideas or new ways of thinking, acting and labeling oneself”
  • Second, “prompt [visitors to see] the world and themselves differently while they are engaged with the exhibit…. trigger identity exploration through experiences of discrepancies between the visitors’ current identities and their experience with the exhibit, promoting re-seeing of one’s past, present or future, or considering a new role for oneself”
  • Before visitors leave the exhibit, “prompt [them] to consider how they see themselves [after the experience]. Create opportunity to articulate ideas that were explored, or commitments that can be made.” 

2. Teens are thrill seekers

The part of the brain that responds to rewards is more active in adolescents than adults and children and teens remember information better when it’s associated with a reward. Daphna Shohamy, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University, scanned the brains of both adults and adolescents as they played a game that rewarded them for guessing correctly. After each question, players saw a photo of an unrelated object. The teens mastered the game faster than the adults. Shohamy then gave the players a memory test about the photos they saw. The teens remembered the photos associated with their correct answers at a higher rate than the adults. 

Gamification may be a way to cater to teens’ hunger for rewards. Gamification is “the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as a…technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.”  Although the value of game based learning is still debated among educators, neuroscientific studies like Shohamy’s point to the utility of gamification. Additionally, teens themselves think games are a way to make museums more interesting. Vanessa Cesário, António Coelho, and Valentina Nisi engaged 155 teens in co-designing a museum tour for a natural history museum. When they analyzed the language teens used in their design proposals, the researchers found the teens mentioned gaming 361 times, more than any other interaction strategy. Unsurprisingly, the most popular type of game, with 59 of mentions, focused on achievements, winning a prize for correctly identifying information. 

3. Teenagers are social creatures

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “during adolescence, young people tend to shift the focus of their social lives from their families to their peers. Adolescents learn how to form healthy relationships and explore their identities with their peers through socializing. High school students spend an average of 38 minutes per weekday and an hour and six minutes per weekend day hanging out and attending social events.” 

Museums can cater to adolescents by designing exhibits that encourage peer group interactions. Exhibit design consultant Paul Orselli was tasked with increasing teen engagement by one of his clients. He conducted focus groups with local teens and found they were, “ interested in social experiences with their friends, but not so much with other visitors (even those with similar interests).” Based on the research Orselli and his client are “refocusing on ways to invite teens to engage with their own friends around museum content–to create and share photos, stories, and ideas with each other instead of with the wider world of the institution. We’re trying to contextualize museum content to their social groups, so that groups of friends can use exhibits as touch points for shared experiences–much as children’s museums design exhibits explicitly for family use and learning.” 

Museums can also increase teen engagement by making teens feel comfortable to just hang out and mess around with their friends in the galleries. Orselli notes that teens are looking for places to spend time with their friends, but parents are nervous to let them loiter unsupervised in public places.Museums could replace malls as a prime hangout spot if they invest in the right infrastructure and policies, including: 

  • Free wifi.
  • Comfortable seating in galleries.
  • Allowing food and drinks in exhibit spaces. 
  • Let there be noise! If only at certain times of day or week, explicitly invite visitors to use their outside voices.

5. Teens don’t give a sh*t

Let me rephrase that – like most people, teens don’t care about what you care about just because you want them to care about it. In other words, Chris Hulleman, director of the Motivate Lab at the University of Virginia found, “students who see relevance and purpose in what they are learning are more motivated and more willing to persist and master challenging concepts.”

In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simone identifies “two criteria that make information relevant: 1) How likely that new information is to stimulate a ‘positive cognitive effect’—to yield new conclusions that matter to you. 2) How much effort is required to obtain and absorb that new information. The lower the effort, the higher the relevance.” 

Want to find out what specific topics are relevant to teens? Collaborate with them. According to Simone, “Collaborative projects fall into two broad categories: 1) Consultative projects, in which institutions engage experts or community representatives to provide advice and guidance to staff members as they develop new exhibitions, programs, or publications and 2) Co-development projects, in which staff members work together with participants to produce new exhibitions and programs.” If you’re institution is new collaboration, a great consultative project to start with could be to invite teens to your museum for focus groups about your exhibits. For example, When making Revealing Stories, an exhibit about LGBT history in Bristol over the last 70 years, the exhibit developers “invited local schools for a sneak preview of some of the exhibition, the students provided us their own interpretation to show their understanding, and to provide another layer of understanding for other students of a similar age, whether LGBT or not.” 

If you’re institution is ready to make a significant commitment to engaging teens, invite local teens to become museum “insiders” through a co-development project. For example, New York Public Library Schomberg branch trains a cohort of teens in exhibit design and invites them to produce an exhibit for the library. According to Zenzele Johnson, the Education Coordinator for the Schomberg Teen Curator’s program, the program has led to more teen groups and college groups visiting because the content is created by teens for teens who understand what interests teens. Furthermore, the teen curators inform their social networks about the exhibit and their friends tell their friends who tell their friends and so on. 


Teenagers belong in museums, but we need to design museums to be more friendly for teenagers. How we do that is by:

  • Exploring identity in exhibits
  • Gamifying our content
  • Making museums a fun place to hang out
  • Inviting teens to be museum insiders 

The best part of these changes is that they not only benefit teenagers, but also audiences of all ages. While teens are particularly sensitive to rewards, many audiences prefer interactive exhibits. Additionally, the strategies for making teens museum “insiders” are the same ones we can use to collaborate with other groups – once museums develop the capacity for collaboration, it can be applied broadly. 

In short – inclusive museums are better museums.

Me as a teenager in a museum

One thought on “Spilling the Tea on Designing Museum Spaces for Teens

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  1. My CEO and I have been discussing this lately. Historically, our policies have been less than welcoming to teens. We brought in my 12 year old and asked her what would make the museum better for people her age. She said a place to chill (We repeatedly find teens going into the quiet/nursing room to lay on the bean bag chairs). Maybe, we do look at different forms of recline to garner use. Place exhibit components on the ceiling? She also said that we need games. The third was more “epic” spaces. After some investigation, we learned that she meant spaces for tik tok videos and other such social media platforms where kids can try on different personalities. -what many adults call acting silly.


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