Ask An Expert: Experienced Notes from the Museum Field – Engaging Youth

This month’s question, asked by Jessamyn Yenni , asks “How can museums incentivize volunteers in younger demographics (who are generally more guarded of their limited spare time) if that cannot afford to pay?”

Wendy says “engage youth while they are young, while there is still time to capture their attention”

This month's questions is being answered by Wendy R. Zucal, the Executive Director of the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum.

This month’s questions is being answered by Wendy R. Zucal, the Executive Director of the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum.

 We are blessed to have volunteers of all ages at our three museums: The Dennison Railroad Depot Museum, Historic Schoenbrunn Village and the Uhrichsville Museum of Clay Industry and Folk Art. Young volunteers are of particular interest to us as we know they are the next generation of caretakers of our historic sites.  We, in turn, can benefit greatly from their ideas and input as we strive to make our museums more relevant to today’s audiences.  We have three levels that we focus upon to attract younger engagement.

 

Level One:   Fourth Grade through High School

Top priority for us is to engage youth while they are young, while there is still time to capture their attention and then we actively work to keep them engaged as they grow older.  If you wait to engage kids in high school or college – it is too late.  We start at fourth grade.
We are very lucky that we have an event kids flock to: Polar Express.  Polar Express Train Rides present such a great opportunity to connect to youth because they bring approximately 300 kids to our museum doors every year.   We never have to seek them – they come to us from school districts all over our county.  These kids have to go through railroad safety training, create their own costumes and work a minimum of 5 hour shifts.  From day one, we put a great deal of responsibility on their role and share how important they are to the museum’s success.  They start in fourth grade with many continuing through college, and even after college as we invite them back. We focus on encouraging them to up their game at the museums by increasing their responsibility, and therefore, their own personal return on investment. For example, we encourage elves to climb up the Polar Ladder to become Storytellers or other leadership roles on the train rides.  In return for their volunteer service, we write many, many college and scholarship support letters. and provide numerous job recommendations which they greatly value.  We also present a Jr. Volunteer of the Year Award for each museum at our Volunteer Banquet each year.
That is our hook.  I think it is important for every historical site to consider what their “hook” is to attract youth, and then work this hook as hard as you can. Polar Express enables us to create a wonderful database of kids which we then cultivate in many ways.  We encourage youth to grow in their roles and responsibilities as Museum  Hoppers, providing awareness of multiple opportunities to volunteer and engage at our other sites and events.  Our T-County Patriot Rally is an event we have created specifically to bring this message home by creating awareness and enthusiasm in history in our area youth.  The Rally is like a Home and Garden Show at our Mall, but instead of filling the mall with gardens we fill it with museum tables and a a wide variety of historical activities with GOOD prizes (Kindles, Ipad, Ipods, etc.)   We thought it was important to take our history and message out to where the kids hang out.

 

Level Two: High School through College 

If we have not captured the attention of a student at a young age, our next plan is to engage young people at the next level, which is internships.  We have a very active internship program for high school and college kids.  We welcome all interests – not just history, but marketing, technology, business, graphic design and more. We have a very active ten week internship program that rewards interns with a small stipend – and the same letters mentioned above. We are also happy to share that we regularly hire our interns at our museums.

 

Level Three:  Young Adults

Many of our young volunteers have made it through all three stages and continue to stay with us.  For those we have not been able to attract in Level One or Two, we focus on our Third Level for engaging young demographics which involves inviting them to participate in fun, social event committees.  For example, our Museum’s Emerging Professionals Committee oversees our annual museum Gala each year.  This year’s theme is Bourbon and Bling!  Anyone interested in theater can join our Sleepy Hollow Cast and crew.  We have a large number of young folks involved in the planning of our Food Truck Fest. These three events are the type of programming that young people like to attend, and therefore, and being put in charge is even better!
Incentives:
In addition to the Letters of Recommendation, Job Referrals, the opportunity to build their resume or even be hired, these young folks are having fun, making new friends, networking, learning new skills and are excited about giving back to their communities.  The relationship is a Win-Win as our museums are not only getting great volunteers, these young folks are buying lifetime memberships at a younger age, contributing more sponsorship and donations than we have seen in the past, and bringing their families to our events.  They have become great Ambassadors for our museum, and in fact – are showing great signs of fulfilling our goal of becoming the next generations of stakeholders.
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One thought on “Ask An Expert: Experienced Notes from the Museum Field – Engaging Youth

  1. Great article! We have a ten week history “camp” called Visiting Cousins so many of our youngest volunteers come to us from there. We often hire them in the summer in our costumed or exhibit programs. We don’t tend to attract too many young volunteers above high school as we are in a rural area and are only ponded June until October when many are working. We do partner up with local Universities to do third party exhibits using our collections and research. We do occasionally get high School Co-ops or interns.

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