After months of sharing research findings from my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers and broader population samples … what have we learned?
1 - Museums are preaching to the choir. In much of what we do, we appeal to those that are intrinsically motivated to learn. But they are only a sliver of the population and we've pretty much cornered that market. Thus …
2 - We have to do much better identifying extrinsic motivations for learning, meeting those needs, and articulating them in our promotional materials. When considering life stage, this takes three forms:
3 - We have to get comfortable with practical impact. That is, not only measuring it and using it as an assessment tool in our work, but also philosophically valuing it ourselves. Yes, I absolutely think the content of all museums should be valued for its own sake. But when we are competing with other organizations that can show their practical impact so much more clearly than us, we lose significant resources. So let's celebrate how we, concretely, matter in people's lives, which may mean as a tool to create better life outcomes. Because the thing is, that means we are also likely opening more minds, cultivating compassion and empathy, and creating connection and community. Having practical impacts does not preclude the impact of valuing art/history/science/or anything else for its own sake. Let's celebrate all of those impacts.
4 - And we matter. We matter for a myriad of reasons. For health and wellness. For prosociality. And for helping people to navigate an increasingly complex world with understanding, open minds, compassion, and strong connections to their communities and to others.
Which brings us to what I see as our role in social justice. We cannot claim to be just organizations until we truly provide equal access for all. The impact we have on individuals, and the potential outcomes of an intrinsically-motivated learning mindset, should not be reserved for those who are at the top (or close to it) of the hierarchies I recently shared. Claiming to welcome all is a sham unless we live it both at our museums and by taking our product to those who cannot visit in person. That means taking programs and exhibitions to our communities, not waiting for them to come. Free admission isn't enough. We can, and should, do much more.
We can also do more in our exhibits and programming by adding individual outcomes to our criteria for planning. Not "our visitors will learn x, y, and/or z," but "will this program expose our visitors to a new culture, a new perspective, a new idea?" Or "will this exhibit make people think, care, or even cry?"
The challenge is, however, that extrinsically-motivated visitors (particularly parents) are not asking for these types of impacts. Not seeking them out. And generally have not experienced those impacts for themselves in museums. If we are going to effect change, we probably shouldn't market it (after all, we have the audience that deliberately seeks it out already), but instead combine those experiences with what extrinsically-motivated visitors specifically want. So that we become a multi-tasking tool of impact.
I'll admit that I have an agenda now in my work. A human agenda. An agenda that has at its focus the amazing thing of being human in this world, and being humane to others in it, through learning and engagement.
And that is why I do what I do. And why I hope others will join me in doing more of this kind of work in support of museums. Because this work is difficult to measure. Yet I suspect there are few things that have those impacts as effectively and efficiently as museums. Yes, there are other things that create those outcomes as well (and are also likely used by parents and caregivers to benefit their children), but what is as effective and efficient? We should figure that out. Soon.
But I need your help to continue this work, as I cannot do it on my own.
I can only field this work when museums join together to provide not only a source for samples, but also minimal funding that I use to purchase broader population samples and push research deeper.
So please, if you value my work, and want to see more of it in the coming year, join the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers. For your museum’s $1,000 fee,* you’ll receive your museum’s custom results from the 2018 survey, including:
But just as important, you will help the entire field gain new insights on what museums can do to make a difference in all of our communities. To enroll or find more information, please visit wilkeningconsulting.com.
*$1,000 fee applies to museums that launch their survey in January or February 2018; the fee increases to $3,000 for museums that launch March 1 or later.
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.