I am struggling with how I release my research findings on community engagement. It would be easy for readers to come away from them thinking that all individuals who are intrinsically motivated to learn are also the most engaged in their communities and the most altruistic. When, actually, an intrinsically motivated person can be a total jerk.
And it would also be easy to come away from this series thinking that extrinsically-motivated individuals are "not as good as" intrinsically-motivated ones because they are less likely to be engaged in their communities and are less likely to be altruistic. But that hides the fact that there are some highly engaged, highly altruistic individuals who just happen to be more extrinsically motivated than intrinsically motivated. After all, motivations are not a zero-sum game, and individual can have high degrees of both … and I'm looking at which one they have more of.
But there are many reasons why people are, or are not, highly engaged in their communities, or with museums. So I'll share what the data shows me, from my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers as well as broader population sampling, in as clinical way as possible. I also beg of you to please remember that these are generalizations based on the overall patterns in the data, and should not be taken as character assessments of any individual person. Every individual person is different, and has different capacities for engagement and learning that may be rooted in socioeconomic status, upbringing, and other influences. And yes, a few people are just jerks.
Now, that being said, let's dive in.
As a field, we are pretty obsessed about community engagement. At least when it comes to our museums. But let's be honest. Generally, we talk about community engagement as more people involved with our museums. That's too narrow (and self-serving).
I want to change our perspective on community engagement, and turn it around to think about what it is, as individuals, we really want for our communities.
And that is healthy communities. Communities that are productive, have a high quality of life, and that provide a good education for children. Communities that support overall wellness from birth to death, thus contributing to our broader society as well.
That means safety, good schools, solid infrastructure, quality affordable housing, and healthcare. But it also means libraries, parks, and places to come together. Vibrant downtowns. Active community centers. The things that make our communities places we care about, and that make us, individually, better able to contribute to our communities as well.
Engagement in our communities means being a full participant in those things.
But my research indicates that there are wide disparities in individual levels of community engagement. There are segments of the population that have extremely low levels of connection to their community. And there are others that have much higher levels of connection (with a whole of people falling somewhere in between). To a considerable extent, this correlates with socioeconomic status, but not entirely. I also see shifting patterns of community engagement by life stage.
Museum-going is another indicator of community engagement. That is, the more someone feels connected to their community, and the more they engage with their community, the more likely they are to be a museum-goer. (A recent UK study supports this; see my review on The Curated Bookshelf.)
In all of these cases, however, there's underlying nuance and variations that are important to consider. Additionally, I am mindful that the questions I asked in my surveys are about traditional, structural things (like libraries and infrastructure) on a community level. That means I likely didn't capture more personal, neighborhood-based connections and engagement … and that may matter.
Over the next few essays, I'll explore community engagement by life stage and more broadly (which includes socioeconomic status), and then put all of it back into the context of museums and our work, so that we can, indeed, do more for our communities.
A note about fielding research. I hold dear the idea that research for the field, about the field, should be shared with the field. But that only works when museums work together to make it possible. Since individual museums are needed to field this work, the survey also benefits participating museums on an individual level by providing benchmark data on visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographic questions … all of which can then be tracked over time in the future. Participating museums are also allowed to add 1 - 2 custom questions specific to their needs.
Which means if you value this research, want more of it in the coming years, and want to track your own museum's progress over time, please support this work by enrolling your museum in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum Goers. The fee for 2018 is only $1,000 per museum.
The questions for these surveys have been inspired by ongoing conversations within the museum field (who does/does not go to museums, why they do/do not visit, and what that means for communities) and ongoing research in the fields of education and psychology around lifelong learning and intrinsic motivation.