How do you create a meaningful visitor experience for the 18–34 demographic—while also meeting the mandate of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC)—in a world in which communications tools are constantly evolving? That was the question that the CMC interpretation team and I asked ourselves in the fall of 2010. To determine the best ways of responding, we hit on the bright idea of putting this demographic to work!

Our first challenge: recruiting participants. If we were going to find the right candidates, it only made sense to approach them in their natural environment. We used the CMC’s Facebook page to promote the project, and posted an online registration form. We also sought the cooperation of university professors within the National Capital Region, as a way of further spreading the word about our initiative. A total of 19 participants were selected, and four groups were formed. Each group was given the task of coming up with a project idea during two three-hour working sessions. Their point of departure: a selection of 43 objects representing the CMC’s collections. I was designated to facilitate their work, never doubting that our project—dubbed “Horizon Y: An Interpretation Research Lab”—would become a dynamic and enriching experience for all concerned.

Goals and Results
Our project was intended, first of all, to formulate hypotheses that would enable the CMC to identify the best distribution and diffusion initiatives for reaching the 18–34 youth demographic, in terms of its collections. The project also sought to gain more comprehensive knowledge of this particular audience, in order to better define it.

Analysis of the work undertaken by the participants enabled us to separate out five major trends relative to the visitor experience and the potential of CMC collections. These were as follows:

  • In order to ensure that this demographic has a positive visitor experience, their contribution to exhibition content seems to be an attractive and significant component.
  • The use of communications technologies appeared to be important, because these are an integral part of how this demographic understands and perceives reality.
  • A multisensory experience, with a very high level of engagement and interaction, is key to success with this demographic.
  • For a successful experience, the opportunity to personalize the visit through a variety of options seems essential.
  • This demographic favoured themes with a societal aspect, for which the CMC’s collection is tailor-made.

Our analysis also suggests that this demographic cannot be defined solely on age. Other criteria such as interests, values, lifestyle, level of education, and cultural influences must also be taken into consideration, because these influence motivations related to museum visitation.

Creativity and Depth
That being said, what struck me throughout this process was participants’ vivacity, ability to synthesize, and creativity. With objects as diverse as a violin (1896), a 1965 calendar, a Canadian Pacific poster (1894), a love letter dated August 24, 1942, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1981), they came up with themes such as “The Search for Happiness: Who Holds the Key?” and “Our Collective Past Influences Our Individual Journeys.”

Their interest in the use of new technologies (touchscreens, mobile devices) did not really surprise me, but I must admit being surprised by the determination of participants to associate a profound feeling with their idea, as well as their desire to situate their project within a collective experience.

The experience was equally enriching for participants. Miguel, for example, said, “It felt great to participate in this study. Also, it makes me feel special to know that I have something to do with the outcome of it.”

Two years after “Horizon Y”, the CMC’s interpretation team continues to forge ahead. The team has been maintaining the dialogue initiated with its audiences through various means, which in turn help the team to innovate in exhibition planning. As a result, additional meetings and discussions are not out of the question. For my part, I’d say that you can definitely count me in.

by Dominique Savard