The 60 plus generation and museums “In the boat”?

The Senior citizens services of the German Museum have been well received; © Deutsches Museum
The Senior citizens services of the German Museum have been well received | Photo (detail): © Deutsches Museum

Why are older people an attractive target group and what services are museum educators developing especially for them? Esther Gajek of the Federal Association for Museum Education explains in an interview.

Ms Gajek, talk of demographic change is everywhere. Sprightly pensioners, now almost a cliché, are an excellent target group for museums: interested, hungry for knowledge and equipped with plenty of time for visiting exhibitions and accompanying events.

Yes, but that’s a stereotype which doesn’t correspond to reality: the image of the “sprightly pensioner” is only one facet of people outside working life. This group is more diverse: sixty year-olds can’t be compared to people in their eighties or even older. And when museums address themselves only to “senior citizens” as a whole, they’re aiming at only a fraction of people over sixty. Only very few people in Germany identify themselves with that term. It calls up associations of the “senior citizens’ pass”, “senior citizens’ home”, “dish for senior citizens” and has a rather pejorative connotation. In terms of a museum education programme, this would mean that senior citizens are rather passive and have to be “entertained”.

And how is the 60 plus group now approached?

As nuanced as possible. Many museums already have part of this group “in the boat”, whether as “friends of the museum”, because they address the educated middle class or in offers for bus trips. But entire groups of potential visitors don’t fit into this pattern, especially people who have yet to discover museums. It will be the task of the next decades to consider who they could be. Above all, we have to establish contact with these groups, get to know them, ask them about their wishes and needs. Only in this way can we serve the various groups more specifically, as is already being done with children and young people.

Great desire for knowledge

Under museum educational services, we generally imagine workshops for school classes and arts and crafts for kids – playful learning about museums and their contents. What does museum education for senior citizens look like?

Museum education is often closely related to teaching. That is, there’s a syllabus and museums make offers that fit into it. Schoolchildren have a rather extrinsic motivation to go to museums. The bulk of adults, on the other hand, is more intrinsically motivated. They want to go to museums because they have a great desire for knowledge – knowledge they couldn’t previously acquire because, for example, of insufficient formal education. But other motivations also play a part: regularity in everyday life, exchange with like-minded people, the opportunity to engage in conversation and much more, but also the wish to do things they’ve always wanted to do. We start at the federal level and try to raise the awareness of museums at meetings and conferences to the effect that the 60 plus group has needs which we have to ask about and then respect.

Do museums already have concrete ideas for this?

Yes. The German Museum, for example, has a monthly seniors tour that is very much in demand. The tour is led by a curator and on it you can sometimes see places that are otherwise inaccessible, such as workshops and depots. At the Museum for Communication in Nuremberg there’s a very different service – to occupy yourself with modern technology (smart phones, for example) without any commercial purpose. In art museums there are efforts in the creative area with workshops where participants actively develop something – methodologically similar to work with school classes, but in content on another level.

A community of like-minded people

Museums have always been historically oriented. This should be seen as an opportunity to consider senior citizens not only as visitors, but also as active partners, as contemporary witnesses who can be interviewed.

This opportunity has been seized very successfully in some places. Museums have integrated this group into their own work, see them as experts on their times and invite them to make contributions. This is the participative approach.

And what do such museum educational programmes mean for seniors?

Many find in museums a community of like-minded people. The meetings structure their weeks or months. In this way museums become sites not only of pure knowledge transfer but also social places.

Will there someday be a specific museum for pensioners, as today there are already museums focussed on children and young people?

If we’re honest about it, the majority of visitors to most museums are 60 plus. Especially during the week, visitors tend to be older. But there’ll never be a pensioners’ museum – no one wants to be thought old! The number of information services for this group, however, will grow because this group is growing. The so-called baby boomers are now reaching retirement age. They’re a demanding public and see themselves as the avant-garde of the elderly. They want not only to participate but also to have a say and co-determine. Here there are already innovative approaches with key workers who have developed their own programmes for their peers. This is very different from the way pensioners and seniors used to be.

Dr. Esther Gajek is spokeswoman for the “Specialized Group Generation 60 plus in the Museum” of the Federal Association for Museum Education e. V. and academic assistant in the Department for Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Regensburg.