Skip to content

Engaging and connecting with young people in museums


In today’s new episode I’m talking to researcher and practice assistant, Leonie Delaey, discussing how museums engage with young people through youth boards and organisations.

Leonie come from a rich background in socio-cultural studies and Cultural Management. She currently serves as a Practice Assistant for the Master in Cultural Management program at the University of Antwerp.

This year, Leonie completed her master’s thesis, centring around the theme of youth engagement in museums. In today’s conversation:

  • We delve into the challenges museums face in effectively engaging and connecting with younger audiences.
  • We explore existing initiatives with young people, such as Antwerp’s Photography Museum or FOMU’s Nightwatch Youth Program, and discuss how these programs aim to involve and empower young individuals.
  • We talk about her research and the 9 building blocks she’s identified to help museums set up and work with youth advisory boards. These blocks provide a comprehensive guide for museums to reflect on their strategies, address challenges, and enhance the effectiveness of their youth engagement initiatives.

Listen to Episode 117 or read the transcript below to explore the challenges, strategies, and potential solutions around the subject of youth engagement in museums.


Claire Bown: Hello, and welcome to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art, objects and ideas to life. So let’s dive into this week’s show.

Claire Bown: Hello and welcome back to The Art Engager podcast. I’m your host Claire Bown of Thinking Museum and this is episode 117. Today I’m talking to researcher and practice assistant Leonie Delaey about how museums engage with young people, particularly through youth boards or youth programmes. But before that, last time I was talking to Kate Oliver about recognising and tackling burnout and exhaustion in museum education.

Claire Bown: Do listen to episode 116 when you get a moment. And now that The Art Engager has over 100 episodes, this podcast is a great resource. You can take your pick from the huge back catalogue of different episodes and use them to brush up on your skills, be inspired, and learn new techniques. So if you want to support this show and keep it going.

Claire Bown: Going from strength to strength. Please treat me to a cup of tea on buymeacoffee. com forward slash Claire Bown. I’ll also put a link in the show notes. And finally, if you have a question for the show or want to suggest a guest or a topic, feel free to get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. OK, now let’s get on with today’s show.

Claire Bown: Before I share our conversation, let me introduce my guest. Léonie comes from a rich background in socio cultural studies and cultural management. Léonie serves as a practice assistant for the Master in Cultural Management programme at the University of Antwerp. Additionally, she is coordinating a pioneering leadership programme designed exclusively for budding cultural leaders at the prestigious Antwerp Management School.

Claire Bown: Leonie believes that culture is transformative and has the potential to tackle issues in society. Drawing on her own multicultural background, Leonie is committed to championing diversity and inclusion in museums. This year, Leonie successfully completed her Master’s thesis, centering around the theme of youth engagement in museums.

Claire Bown: In today’s conversation, we delve into the challenges museums face in effectively engaging and connecting with youth. We explore some existing initiatives with young people, such as FOMU’s Nightwatch youth programme, and discuss how these programmes aim to involve and empower young individuals. We talk about her research and the nine building blocks she’s identified to help museums set up and work with youth advisory boards.

Claire Bown: These blocks provide a comprehensive guide for museums to reflect on their strategies, address challenges, and enhance the effectiveness of their youth engagement activities. We talk about the impact of Leonie’s research and how it serves as a tool for museums to reflect on their strategies and to make informed decisions regarding youth engagement.

Claire Bown: Leonie’s research not only uncovers the challenges museums face in connecting with young people, but also offers practical solutions through the nine building blocks. However, young people are the future of museum visitation and involving them isn’t just a choice, it’s a necessity. So as you listen today, think about how you might get young people more actively involved with the organisations you work with.

Claire Bown: It was fascinating talking to Leonie about her research, and I hope you enjoy our conversation too.

Claire Bown: Hi Leonie, welcome to The Art Engager. Hi Claire. So delighted you’re here. Could you explain to our listeners who you are and what you do?

Leonie Delaey: So I’m Léonie, I live in Antwerp at the moment I’m an assistant at the University of Antwerp for everything that has to do with management in the cultural scene.

Leonie Delaey: And a part of that, I also do a project about leadership where I engage with a lot of leaders and try to help them with their management skills. So I’m really passionate about the cultural scene and management. So that’s a little bit of what I do.

Claire Bown: Fascinated to hear about your work. And I invited you onto this podcast because I heard about the research that you did for your thesis, for your master’s thesis. and I thought it would be a wonderful subject to discuss on the podcast. So perhaps you could explain to our listeners a little bit about your research, why you started it and what it’s about.

Leonie Delaey: So my research is about the museum scene and how they try to engage youngsters, especially how they try to have a youngsters group or a youngsters organisation. Because a lot of museums have actually problems with engaging younger people and we see it also that the audience they’re often older people and it’s find it really hard to make a programme that is more suitable for youngsters.

Leonie Delaey: We saw that a lot of museums are trying to have a youngster board, a youngster group to engage with the youngsters, but we see that it’s really difficult for a museum because they don’t have the knowledge of how to engage with young people. And that’s why I started my research to really look at what model or what system can we create and what is important for the museum itself also to engage with those young people, but also what do the youngsters need so that you have actually the both stakeholders, we would call it and what their needs are.

Claire Bown: Interesting. So it’s from both sides of the equation as well, what the museums will need, but what the youngsters, what the youths will need as well. What sort of problems do museums have with youth initiatives or youth programmes?

Leonie Delaey: I think it’s often that they don’t really understand the needs of the youngsters because a lot of youngsters in research, you can see it that they say often, ‘we don’t think that the museum is a place that is made for us’.

Leonie Delaey: So it’s like they, they don’t feel connected to the space, so they will not go there often. And they have often the feeling if they are there, that they don’t understand the topics or the programme. So they feel really disconnected. So we see actually that young people, if they are under 16, they go with school, they go with their family, so they are engaged.

Leonie Delaey: And then at 16 till 26 they are really disconnected often from museums. And after 26, it depends, of course, if if they… They have an interest in art or not, then they go back. But we really want to stimulate museums to be a place for everyone. And I think if you want to be a place for everyone in society, then it’s also important to look at your audiences that are not coming. And youngsters are a big part of that group

Claire Bown: actually. Yeah, so we’re talking about an age group between 16 and 26 or 18 and 26 depends on how the museum might define that age group. I know you started from a request from FOMU, which is the photography museum in Antwerp.

Claire Bown: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started with the research and FOMU’s Nightwatch youth programme.

Leonie Delaey: The FOMI Nightwatch youth programme is actually a programme that already tries to give an answer on the topic. So they engage five youngsters and the youngsters create a programme for other youngsters.

It’s like a snowball effect. But we see that it’s really important that not only the youngsters that like Nightwatch come into the museum and they make programmes for other youngsters. You want to also have the curators, the programmers, that everybody has the same mindset.

So in Nightwatch they also created a buddy system. And that’s actually when you have a youngster that is linked to a museum worker, and in that way, the museum could create a system where the youngsters could also reflect on how the typical normal programme is and how they can make small changes to make it accessible or more interesting for youngsters.

Leonie Delaey: That’s a little bit what Nightwatch did, and they asked me to look at also in other countries. to see the pitfalls and the benefits of those programmes because every museum is experimenting. Not everyone, but a lot of them didn’t experiment already and then stopped or are still experimenting with a young audience.

Leonie Delaey: But there is no structure. There is no model. There’s a lot of knowledge and experience, but there is no way to engage with each other and to share the knowledge.

Claire Bown: Yeah, so FOMU asked you to evaluate their own programme, and then that led to you looking into youth programmes in other museums around the world, I believe.

Claire Bown: So what kind of museums did you research into, and what questions did you ask them?

Leonie Delaey: Yeah, so I did research in different museums. Most of them were in Europe, so I did in the Netherlands then I did also in Serbia, in Belgium. And in Finland.

Leonie Delaey: I just did an interview with 14 museums. And I always ask them, okay, do you already have something for youngsters? Do you have already a programme? Are you really already engaging them inside of your management structure more? Why do you think it’s important?

Leonie Delaey: Why do you think it’s not important? What do you need? What are the questions or what are the choices you need to make in the museum to create it? And so that’s one of the questions I always ask. And the responses, of course were different, but I think the most important thing that I saw was that a lot of museums, there are some people in the museum that are really interested in working with youngsters, but you also have A group in the museum that is not interested, or don’t see the benefit of it.

Leonie Delaey: So it’s really a conflict. It was a conflict in every museum that I asked that it was really a discussion always to create a youngster board because I think it’s not easy and that sometimes museums don’t feel that they need to do it.

Leonie Delaey: So you see that it’s always a discussion inside a museum about how to engage, and if they should engage young.

Claire Bown: What came out of the research then, when you’ve listened, you’ve spoken to all these 14 museums, you’ve asked them all the questions, what sorts of patterns came out of the research?

Leonie Delaey: So there was no structure actually about how to create a youth group and what are the important questions to ask yourself to create a youth group or a youth board.. And with all the interviews, at first I wanted to create a perfect model, like the model that every museum can use.

Leonie Delaey: And then, of course, when I did the research and had the interviews with the different museums, I said, okay, every museum has a different context. They are working with also a different discipline often. So we see that art disciplines are actually more easy for youngsters to go to because it’s more abstract, it’s more fantasy driven.

Leonie Delaey: So it’s more easy sometimes to connect it than a more historical museum. So what I really find in the research, that I should create a model with more questions where museums can reflect on it, than to say this is the perfect model.

Claire Bown: Yeah. And I find that really interesting – so you came up with nine building blocks that museums can use to help them set up, design and run and manage a youth programme, a youth initiative in their museum.

Claire Bown: So can you talk us a little bit through the nine building blocks maybe explain a little about each. I know there’s nine of them, but yeah, just maybe give us an introduction to the nine different blocks.

Leonie Delaey: Yes, so the nine different blocks are based on the interviews, of course, and on the choices that the museum needs to make.

Leonie Delaey: So the first block is resources. So how much resources do the youngsters get to engage? Because that’s really important to think about it at first, then leadership, internal, external leadership, activities, the target group, what are youngsters, what diversity, all those questions. Then the form of participation, is it more a hosted project?

Leonie Delaey: Is it more a collaboration? Then the objectives, are they already there? Is there a framework? How does that work? The sustainability, how do we see it in the long run? tHe professionality what they learn by engaging in the youth group, and what is the relationship between the museum and the youngsters, how can we define them? So that are the nine building blocks that I saw in all the interviews that the museum can implement in their own structure.

Claire Bown: And can you talk us through perhaps a couple of those building blocks in a bit more detail?

Leonie Delaey: Yeah, so the resources, that’s a really important one, because it will define who of the youngsters will be engaged in the museum. And of course, the museum would like to have youngsters that would normally not go to the museum.

Leonie Delaey: So we saw that actually museums who are paying or giving a fee to the youngsters, they have much more social, ethnical economical diversity. So it’s interesting If you are not paying, you will see you will get more students who are already also in art or already going to a museum every month.

Leonie Delaey: So actually you’re not really getting the target group that you are looking for. So this is a really important one because we really thought it makes a big difference if you ask youngsters to voluntarily be active in the museum, because it’s not that easy for young people to be a volunteer, that’s already a privilege.

Leonie Delaey: So that’s something a museum should really be aware about who they want to have as a group in the youngster

Claire Bown: boards.

Claire Bown: Yeah, absolutely. So thinking about resources, whether they’re going to pay their youth board or not, how they’re going to interact with them, and what people they want to attract to the youth programme are really important.

Claire Bown: What about leadership?

Leonie Delaey: Leadership is more about, okay, if you start a youth programme, are you as a museum the leader? Or do you want to work with other organizations and do they take the leadership ?

Leonie Delaey: And we saw some museums have internal leadership -that somebody inside of the museum takes it as an extra role to coordinate the youth groups. And some museums did it external, so they work together with a school or or other youth organizations that they bring inside of the museum.

Leonie Delaey: And so there it’s important to stay. Okay, if it’s internal, then the youngsters, they are really connected with the museum, they are connected to the staff. They really feel engaged with the whole museum. And they will also in the long run feel engaged with the museum. So also if they get older, they really are connected with the identity of the museum.

Leonie Delaey: But when it’s external, if the programme stopped or the partner that they were working with decided to stop, that the youngsters didn’t feel that attached to the museum. It was more infrastructure. It was more a place where they could do the programme, but they felt more attached to the identity of the external partner.

Leonie Delaey: So it’s a choice you need to make, because of course, if it’s internal leader, it’s more work for your organization, but it maybe it’s more beneficial

Claire Bown: yeah. Yeah, so there’s always a, there’s a trade off, obviously, between the different choices, but the choices need to be made and perhaps the implications of those choices are not always…

Claire Bown: It’s clear to museums when they’re setting up these programmes and what about activities? So I’m interested in the different types of activities that youth programmes or youth boards are involved in museums. What sorts of things did you find and what did you put in the building blocks?

Leonie Delaey: Yeah, so we saw a lot of youth programmes that was programming themselves, doing talks, Making exhibitions, and so it could be almost everything. But in the building blocks, I really try to say how the museum as a management structure should lead the activity.

Leonie Delaey: So in the Prescribed (model), the museum actually says to the youngsters, okay, you’re going to do this, you will make exhibitions, these are your artists, we want 300 visitors, so they are really prescribed already.

Leonie Delaey: Then the Framework (model) is more that they get like a budget, they get a space, but they can really coordinate it more themselves still.

Leonie Delaey: And then Free to Decide (model). Museums that say, okay, just do whatever you want, and we will listen and try to create it.

Leonie Delaey: So those groups actually Often stopped, it just didn’t work at all. And then if it was too prescribed, then they don’t feel a sense of ownership anymore. So they were also not really engaged in that way it felt more like. work if they were paid, or just the free thing they had to do, but they didn’t know why exactly they were doing it. So the best thing to do is to more create a framework, but of course, because then you need to give some flexibility as an institution.

Claire Bown: So finding that middle way that is not too rigid or not too flexible. And that there’s something that people can work within a framework, as you say.

Leonie Delaey: I was asked a number of years ago to do some research myself in this area for a museum and to find out for them what things they needed to know to start their own youth programme. And I started doing the research and it was so much to take into consideration.

Claire Bown: So the fact that you’ve distilled it into these nine handy building blocks, I think is really useful for museums so they can have a tool that they can use and they can go to, to think about all the questions that, that perhaps need to consider in advance. What are your plans for the research in the future?

Leonie Delaey: Yeah, I would like, of course, that more museums are connected with the tool and also I would like to fine tune it maybe a little bit more in the future, but I think it’s already a really good model.

Leonie Delaey: Because for me personally, I was also a youngster of a museum group when I was younger, and I know the benefits for the youngster and for the museum, and it’s a win for both. So I thought it’s so amazing to promote it more.

Claire Bown: Brilliant. And we’ll share it as far and wide as we can through this podcast. So perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about how we could find out more about the research and a little bit more about you.

Leonie Delaey: yOu can find the research in LinkedIn, so you can always reach out to me if you have some questions about it. I’m really happy to engage about this topic. That would be nice.

Claire Bown: Wonderful. And we’ll put links to your LinkedIn profile in the show notes so people can find them there.

Claire Bown: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and talking about your research. It’s so helpful. It’s so practical. It’s great to have tools out there that we can use to get more of these initiatives in museums. So thank you. Thank you

Leonie Delaey: so much for having me,

Claire Bown: so a huge thank you to Leonie for being on the podcast today. I hope you enjoyed our chat. Go to the show notes to find out more about Leonie’s research, to find out more about Leonie’s research, and to connect with her on LinkedIn. And if you’re interested in participating in some gentle and restful…

Claire Bown: For slow looking. Come and join us in the Slow Looking Club. We have monthly themes and regular get togethers, all based around the idea of slowing down and noticing more. I’ll put a link in the show notes. That’s it for this episode. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time. Bye. Thank you for listening to the Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my website, thinking And you can also find me on Instagram, at Thinking Museum, where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share with others, and subscribe to the show on your podcast player of choice.

Claire Bown: Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time.