By Amanda Smith

Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, Flikr, Pintrest, Tumblr, YouTube and LinkedIn – all popular social media sites used predominantly by the 18-30 age bracket, a.k.a. “millennials”.

There are so many different ways to connect with friends and family, to share your life experiences online, that it often seems like it’s a competition to have had the best experiences. Being seen to be actively doing something with your life has become such a prominent and absorbing part of a millennial’s existence that tourist destinations which don’t market themselves as offering an experience are missing out on a significant amount of potential revenue.

So how to get these young adults back into your museum? Amy Schaffman of the Augusta Museum of History in Georgia, U.S.A thinks she might have the answer…

Encouraging Millennials to Escape from Your Museum  

At first glance, this may seem at cross-purposes with your overall aim!

However, after recently checking out the MuseumNext website (a regular conference where museum professionals can gather and share ideas about how to develop their field) I came across Amy’s delivery of her 2017 conference paper ‘Escaping the Mundane: Using Escape Rooms in a Museum Setting’. Her research into the millennial gap in the museum market led her to discover that the increasingly popular “escape rooms” were attracting the precise 18-30 age group which she wanted her museum to appeal to.

Escape rooms are essentially a team-building exercise where you and your team have to find clues to escape the room you’re locked in within a certain time limit. But working together to solve the clues is the most challenging part! Part of Amy’s research into what motivated millennials to visit an attraction led her to comparing permanent and temporary installations. She noticed that while art galleries may not attract many millennials, art festivals do. The difference is that “the art festival takes place within a finite amount of time and is, therefore, a novelty.” The appearance of originality attracts millennials to an event, and Amy believes that to entice this particular market, museums have to fill their galleries and exhibits not only with experiences but also unique, time-limited features.

Amy took the concept of the escape room and adapted it to suit the Augusta Museum; she’s turned it into a time-limited event by only hosting the event on Saturdays and themed the escape rooms around the exhibition spaces they’re held inside of. One of the rooms features a murder mystery, loosely based on fact, and features objects which come from the exhibition (the other escape rooms based in separate exhibition spaces have different themes and stories). The story-telling immerses the visitor in the much sought-after experience whilst getting them to directly engage with an exhibition at the same time.

Hey, look at that – learning just became interactive and fun!

So now that this millennial-luring model has been established, how successful is it?

Following the Fad and “The Experience Economy”

At the time of the launch Amy’s escape rooms were sold out and apparently a great success, but the Augusta Museum was the only escape room provider in the area at the time. Competition has since sprung up nearby and has put extra pressure on the museum to come up with something new and innovative to stay ahead of the curve. The problem is though that museums and other institutions tend to react to the demands of the “Experience Economy” rather than perceiving the next big thing.

“The what Economy?”

It’s a term that was coined in 1999 by two theorists, Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. They argued that what people expected from museums and tourist attractions was changing and they no longer wanted to simply learn but to have that learning embedded in an experience. Therefore, the traditional economy of the museum needed to change. The Dungeons, currently operated by the tourism company Merlin Entertainments, could be considered a very early forerunner of this concept. It originally opened in London in 1974 and delivers historical information, but a decidedly dark one, in a grisly and gruesome setting (though it’s meant to be fun)! The format has become so popular since the 1970s that the Dungeons brand now boasts 9 sites across Europe and America.  This type of “edutainment” delivers knowledge with a little thrill to enhance the visitor’s learning experience; it’s set the visitor experience standard which traditional museums are now comparing themselves with. The Augusta Museum is now modifying its stance as a traditional museum by including the escape rooms into its programme – following current trends which they hope will deliver the type of experience which their visitors are searching for.

However, it doesn’t end there!

In their 2016 article ‘Existential Authenticity and Anxiety as Outcomes: The Tourist in the Experience Economy’, Ksenia Kirillova, Xinran Y Lehto and Liping Cai argue that James and Joseph’s arguments are now irrelevant because the experience economy has moved into a third wave. They believe that in this wave, visitors no longer desire just an experience and knowledge, they also want the experience to be meaningful, life-changing and to create longer-lasting memories. This is due to the individual person’s search for “existential authenticity” – the epiphany moment when a person on a quest to search for their true self finally finds it. It’s a concept typically associated with students on gap years and in their statistical analysis of this phenomenon, the three co-authors found that age does have an influence on when existential authenticity is realised.

Yet museums have only just began to catch up with the trend of delivering an experience to their visitors and now the goalposts have been moved again! By the time they’ve caught up with the fad, the trend has moved on and the museum finds itself back at square one trying to capture the millennial audience.

If it’s the case that this is the direction the experience economy is now headed in, how can a museum deliver the type of experience that is usually only found on far-flung adventures?


Does Jumping on the Bandwagon Work?

Unless museums can stay ahead of the curve and anticipate trends (and have the funds to capitalise on them), they will always struggle to stay relevant and be forever reinventing themselves to appeal to the 18-30 target market. This isn’t really a long-term solution as changing museum exhibitions to suit new fads every few years will be costly.

However, I struggle to see how museums in their current stage of evolution will be able to adapt to this third wave of the Experience Economy. At the moment, they can’t physically take people out of their comfort zones and place them in the kinds of “hardship” situations which Ksenia, Xinran and Lipang describe as being the only way to discover a meaningful tourist experience. Perhaps as close as a museum can get to taking someone out of their comfort zone is by locking groups of them in a room and making them work with each other to figure out how to escape?

Either way, it seems to be working but the jury’s still out as to whether it’s a long-term solution.


Amy Schaffman was speaking during the Melbourne MuseumNext conference 15th-17th February 2017. The delivery of her conference paper can be viewed for free online here (if you’re familiar with TED talks, the MuseumNext format is similar and very accessible).

Full citation: Schaffman, A. (2017) ‘Escaping the Mundane: Using Escape Rooms in a Museum Setting’. MuseumNext: RISK. Melbourne, Australia 15th-17th February 2017. MuseumNext. Available at: <>. [Accessed 16th June 2017].


Other Works Used:

Kirillova, K., Lehto, X.Y. & Cai, L. (2016). ‘Existential Authenticity and Anxiety as Outcomes: The Tourist in the Experience Economy’. International Journal of Tourism Research 19, pp. 13-26. This article can be accessed here for free. 

Pine II, B.J. and Gilmore, J. (1999). The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage. (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press). Available in print. A Google Books version is available here with some page omissions.

Pine II, B.J. and Gilmore, J. (2007). ‘Museums and Authenticity’. Museum News May/June, pp.76-93. This article can be accessed for free here.


Photo Credit: Pixabay (free for commercial use) Available here. [Accessed 23rd June 2017].