Mobility. When we think of regular museum-goers, we often (correctly) think about them in terms of being well-educated professionals. But we don't generally think about the mobility that comes with that education.
But educated people tend to have more options in life, and that includes where they live. This contributes to brain-drain from some communities, where college-bound youth typically don't return after graduation, while other communities teem with young, well-educated adults (Silicon Valley, Seattle, Brooklyn).
Thus, it is more likely that our local visitors are not born-and-bred locals. In my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, only one in five respondents said they felt "very" connected to their community because they had lived there all their lives. (And I suspect most of them are "rooted in place" by choice, unlike in broader population samples.)
But a third of museum-goers feel deeply connected through their own efforts. They worked hard to put down deep roots in the community they settled in as an adult.
Which brings us to life stage, mobility, and community engagement. Mobility tends to happen at specific times in people's lives, and that matters for community engagement over a lifetime. (So does arts consumption and museum-going, as I mentioned before, and will cover in more detail soon.)
So let's first look at the patterns in the data about regular museum-goers.
Young Adults Under 40, no children
These young adults are highly mobile and, as relatively new residents, haven't really put down roots. Among museum-goers, they are the least connected to their communities, with only a third saying they felt "very" connected. They are also twice as likely as other museum-goers to not feel connected at all.
Why? Well, they are far more likely to be single, living in a community they moved in to. The only community networks they have are likely to be through their work (which may or may not be conducive to developing community connections) and any friends they have made. Breaking into a community is hard.
Yet that doesn't mean they don't care about their communities. Indeed, they are the least likely segment to say that they think their community is doing "fine," and they are the most likely to have concerns about their community. Additionally, in my broader population work, young adults were the most likely to value local museums and libraries (as well as other amenities such as a diverse population, access to parks and nature, and interesting restaurants and food markets).
My question for museums, then, is how can help young adults build broader and deeper community networks in the communities they live? This has to go beyond evening events (though those help) to additional initiatives designed to help these concerned young adults connect and engage with their communities. Bonus: museums become even more relevant in the process.
Parents with Young Children
Museum-going parents with young children, we now know, tend to be extrinsically motivated. That extends to their community engagement as well. While two-fifths feel "very" connected to their communities, it varies widely based on motivation: intrinsically-motivated parents are about a third more likely to feel deeply connected than extrinsically-motivated parents (57% do).
And since the vast majority of museum-going parents of young children are extrinsically motivated, it is not a surprise that this segment of respondents had the fewest concerns about their community. Perhaps an indication that they are not engaged enough with their community to know what to be concerned about.
Why? I suspect it has to do with depth of engagement. Both sets of parents likely found parenthood was a catalyst for developing a more extensive community network. Suddenly, via children, the local network expands … quickly.
But intrinsically-motivated parents were likely more engaged in their communities before children, because it suited their needs and interests and because engagement in arts and museums specifically is a predictor of prosociality and cooperation, as other studies have found as well (even when controlling for education and income). Their quality of engagement is thus deeper, and likely more diverse, than parents whose engagement is primarily via their children.
This has some interesting outcomes when we consider museum type. Parents of young children who visit history or art museums regularly (and are more intrinsically motivated) are more deeply connected to their communities and have more concerns about their communities than parents of young children who visit children's museums or science centers regularly (and are more extrinsically motivated).
Which suggests that children's museums and science centers have an opportunity here to consider ways that they can help their captive audience of extrinsically-motivated parents connect more deeply, and thus deliver greater community impact through an even more civically-engaged population. How? A start might be by considering ways parents can get to know their neighbors better. After all, not knowing neighbors was their top concern, with 38% flagging it.
Parents of Tweens and Teens
As we saw in my recent releases on The Parent Bubble, by middle school we have lost most (but not all) extrinsically-motivated parents and their children as regular museum-goers. Museum-going parents of tweens and teens are more likely to be intrinsically-motivated. And since they are older, and intrinsically-motivated, they have had both more time and reason to develop deeper community connections: over half feel "deeply" connected.
Broader population samples, however, hint at something else going on. When it comes to interest in and activity levels in a community, there seems to be a pulling-back among this segment. That is, as children become more independent, community engagement with the parents contracts slightly. We see this manifest itself clearly with The Parent Bubble, as museum-going drops significantly. But it comes out in other ways too as children no longer drive parental engagement as much. Dropping off children at events requires far less involvement than staying and supervising (and chatting with others). I'll be looking for better ways to track this "midlife malaise" as research progresses, but retaining these parents as museum-goers may be a start.
Older Adults, no minor children
Among museum-goers, older adults have the deepest connection to their communities: 61% feel deeply connected. It makes sense. They are intrinsically-motivated, and they have likely spent longer time in their communities, having settled in and deepened roots (2.5x more likely to say they have put down deep roots than young adults).
Despite that, young adults without children, as I mentioned earlier, have more concerns about their community than even this segment. True, older adults are more concerned about an aging population, but they are less concerned about knowing neighbors, or the needs of at-risk children, and so on.
Broader population samples reflect some, but not all, of these patterns. Connection to community stabilizes in middle age, and stays relatively steady through the older years. But older adults were less interested in their community, and its amenities, than younger adults. More broadly, older adults vote more, but engage less with their communities than younger adults. Why? My initial findings indicate it has to do with educational attainment. Community engagement and education go hand-in-hand. Since older adults have lower levels of educational attainment, they have overall lower levels of community engagement. And that also means lower levels of museum-going. Older adult museum-goers are, it turns out, outliers of engagement.
But that indicates a huge growth opportunity for museums. We have a rapidly aging population. We'll be beset with ever-increasing healthcare needs as they age. Healthy aging is going to be critically important to help seniors in their old age so that they live the best lives they can for as long as possible, benefiting themselves, their families, and healthcare costs. Museums are fantastic at providing both social and cognitive benefits, which all support overall well-being (see my research reviews of The Social Wellbeing of New York City's Neighborhoods and Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing for evidence of impact). Our communities, and our healthcare system, need places like museums. By engaging more seniors with museums, and encouraging their greater community engagement, we truly serve our communities well.
But what about socio-economic status?
To reinforce, most of what I shared in this essay is about well-educated museum-goers. Yes, I brought in work from broader population sampling to support my conclusions, but the broader work is more complicated, largely due to socio-economic status, lower educational attainment, and structural racism. I'll begin to unpack that next.
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.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.