"Museums represent humanity in all of its breadth, wonder, rawness and beauty. A world without museums would be less human. Simple as that."
- Respondent, 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers
It's the question we all ask ourselves, all the time: What is the impact of museums?
Yet within this question lie many deeper questions. What is the impact we have on children? On adults? Our communities? Is there a ripple effect, with those who don't visit museums still benefiting in some way?
The initial answer is yes, of course. No question we have impact. But defining that impact, isolating it to museums, measuring it, assessing our effectiveness, well, we all know that is far trickier.
Yet nothing is more important to measure. After all, this is the articulation of why we matter, not only to those who visit us, but to everyone.
Unsurprisingly, then, impact was a big theme in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers and Broader Population Sampling. And the good news is that both museum-goers and non-visitors happen to think we do some pretty great things.
Overall Findings - Museum-Goers
So what are the top five impacts of museums, according to museum-goers? In descending order, that museums make us:
Pretty fantastic, right? And what is fascinating for me to see is that when I look at all of the cross tabs and filters that help me segment museum-goers, I see that these impacts are fairly consistent, regardless of life stage, demographics, and geography (I'm thinking red state/blue state). Sure, there's some movement and nuance (we'll get to that), but overall, the values that underlie these impacts are universal.
(Respondents could also write in other impacts, and some great things were shared, but nothing really jumped out as significant.)
My broader population sampling returned a similar, but not exactly the same, ranking. In this case, however, the majority of respondents are non-visitors projecting impact on those who do visit museums.
But while the overall percentages were lower for the broader population (not a surprise), it is interesting to note that the percentage responding "more creative" is actually pretty consistent across both samples.
What's Next to Share
These top impacts do, of course, merit more scrutiny around who, how, and why. I'll be looking at four of these impacts more closely, and sharing more nuance, over the coming weeks.
Supplementing this quantitative work was an open-ended question museum-goers were asked to consider: imagine a community or world with no museums. Turns out, the loss-aversion tactic works really well in helping people articulate the role museums have played in their lives. These responses will flesh out the how and why of what I share.
The responses were also overwhelmingly heartfelt and stridently in support of the significant role museums play in people's lives. So much so that every day I post a new, randomly chosen, response and share it on my Facebook page and Twitter feed (@susiewilkening). Follow me in either place for a daily dose of "hey, you matter!"
But I want to push back a bit on the one impact I won't be focusing on: well-rounded/broadened horizons. To be fair, I think this is a fantastic impact, and is one I would certainly choose for myself and for what I hope museums are doing for my own children. That being said … the values it embraces are inherent in the other four impacts. Indeed, I would say being well-rounded, with broader horizons, comes as a result of the knowledge, curiosity, empathy, and creativity that museums cultivate.
I'll wrap up this series with a release on revisionist history. Because even though that wasn't my question (at least, not in this survey), some comments on Confederate monuments, and a perception of the past being "changed" came through. They may have only been a handful of comments, but the themes they reflect, in today's polarized society, matter deeply to our work.
In my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, I asked respondents to share with me what they felt the impact of museums in their life had been. Their open-ended responses were amazing, and I shared many of them last year in a series of posts. For 2018, I took the most common themes from those answers and created a close-ended question so that we could assess what percentage of museum-goers had experienced each outcome. I then developed a similar question for the broader population, asking them to identify the impact of museums on those that visit.
But asking about impact directly doesn't always give museum-goers room to articulate the role museums actually place in their lives. In the 2017 survey, one respondent mused, “Can you imagine a world without museums?” Great question, so I included it.
Make the 2019 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers possible!
Do you value this research? Does it help you in your work at your museum? Do you want it to continue to help you and our field?
If so, consider how useful it would be to know how your museum's stakeholders feel about your museum, lifelong learning in museums, and more. By enrolling your museum in the 2019 Annual Survey of Museum Goers, you can easily benchmark the visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographics of your stakeholders. Additionally, you can compare your results to your peers, begin to track them over time, and gain far more contextual information through your custom results and report. The fee for 2019 is only $1,000 per museum.
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.