I bet you love to go to museums. It's the joy of learning, isn't it? Seeing new things, finding out what they are, connecting those stories with others you may know (or to your life experiences). You just never know what you'll learn … and that excites you, right?
And you've seen visitors to museums who are like you. Looking around in wonder, having "oh" and "a-ha" moments of connection and insight, intently reading, looking, talking, or doing.
But they are not all museum visitors, are they? Or even a majority of museum visitors? Because over there? There is a mom, spending more time looking at her phone than the exhibits. I bet she'd rather be doing something else. And on Friday night will your after-hours event be teeming with young adults, many of whom will consider the objects and exhibits mostly background?
I'm not casting aspersions on that mom, or those young adults. Heck, sometimes even I am that mom. The thing is, people come to museums for many different reasons … all of which are valid. And as many of you have shared with me, figuring out those reasons, which are both intrinsic and extrinsic, matter.
I took all of this into consideration when I sat down to draft the 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers. Indeed, sorting out intrinsic and extrinsic motivations around learning ended up being the primary line of inquiry, as my analysis is showing understanding these motivations, and their differences, are incredibly important.
Having an intrinsic motivation for learning, and for visiting museums, not only affects visitation rates over a lifetime, but it affects level of engagement, depth of impact, and philanthropy. Additionally, I'm uncovering patterns that an intrinsic motivation for learning also affects civic engagement, community attachment, and outlook and outcomes in life. The difference matters.
So let's back up a moment and consider what is intrinsic motivation, and what is more extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivations around learning are based in an inherent desire to know. Curiosity. A joy in learning. A feeling of satisfaction when one has had to think and figure something out. A belief that learning unlocks understanding, empathy, a broader outlook, and a confidence in action. Now, someone with strong intrinsic motivations may not believe all those things (much less articulate them), but that's the basic pattern. Psychological and educational research has shown that students with strong intrinsic motivations outperform other students, as do intrinsically-motivated employees.
In contrast, extrinsic motivations around learning are more about a means to an end. Going to college to get a good job (or better job security). Choosing a profession based on salary, not affinity. Visiting museums so that your children learn something (and it's your job as a parent to provide that exposure or experience).
It isn't a zero-sum game, however. Being intrinsically motivated does not preclude extrinsic motivations as well. I consider myself highly intrinsically motivated, but I also acknowledge that my education is a means to an end for bringing in an income to support my family. Or that I may have to research something I'm not interested in because it matters for my work. The two motivations can live together quite nicely, as my rough, hand-drawn graphic shows. The distressing part is that more people are not strongly intrinsically motivated.
Though, to be fair, a person who is otherwise an extrinsically motivated person may, at times, show intrinsic motivations around certain subjects. Think of a Star Wars fan at a Star Wars exhibit (but ignoring the rest of the museum), or a quilter who comes for the quilt exhibit … and nothing else.
Because of this, I am focusing on overall attitudes around learning. I'm (mostly) making an assumption that we all have extrinsic motivations for pursuing education, but trying to understand the differences between those for whom intrinsic motivations run just as deep (or deeper) and those for whom the extrinsic motivations are stronger. Or little-to-no intrinsic motivation at all.
How do these individuals differ? Why does it matter? And how important is it to museums to change their messaging to attract more extrinsically motivated visitors? (The answers are: in many ways, a lot, and very important, especially given that I estimate 95% of the population is more strongly extrinsically motivated.)
To begin to suss this out, last fall I began testing questions that would allow me to sort out those who are primarily driven by intrinsic motivations, and those who are not. I then fielded a broader population sample, and included the two questions that worked best (which focused on the purpose of pursuing higher education and whether work should be rewarding or well paid; neither question was about museums at all). There were significant differences when it came to museum visitation, community engagement, and also political engagement and persuasion.
I found similar differences this winter among different segments of museum-goers, leading to some individuals who engage with museums over a lifetime (and who can articulate how those museums have had a strong impact in their lives) and other individuals who show truly alarming attrition rates when museums do not meet their extrinsic goals. Harrowingly high attrition rates.
Over the next few posts, I'll begin laying out those differences, and then examine different segments of museum-goers through this lens of motivations around learning. Stay tuned … I'm going to take you to the depths of despair, but also give you hope that museums can do more to matter deeply in our society.
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 this survey 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. In particular, they have been greatly influenced by:
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.