"I visit local museums to feel a part of my world. On vacations, I visit museums to discover worlds that differ from my own." - This and all quotes from respondents of the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers
Sense of place. That fuzzy something that makes each different city or place different. That gives it character, and personality, setting it apart from other cities or communities.
The idea that museums contribute to a sense of place in individual cities and communities isn't new; it comes up periodically in our field. It is also an idea that pops up fairly regularly in my work with museum-goers, especially when they share with me that they cannot imagine going on vacation somewhere without visiting the local museums.
But while I think that it is lovely when people plan trips around museums, there's a harder question that I think is more important: how do local museums contribute to a sense of place on a community by community basis? That is, not how the Metropolitan Museum of Art helps define New York City for visiting museum-goers, but how someplace like the White County Historical Society contributes to a sense of place in Cleveland, Georgia for its residents.
That local question, however, is harder to answer.
In the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, two different lines of inquiry were followed in the survey: parents of minor children received a set of questions that were explored earlier this year on The Data Museum, and all other respondents received two open-ended sense of place questions. (Note: the fact that parents of minor children were not included in these questions shouldn't affect the results, as the questions are not related to parental status; that being said, you should still take their omission from the sample under consideration as you read this post. Methodology matters.)
To put respondents in the mindset to answer that local sense of place question, they were first asked to consider how museums contribute to the sense of place of the destinations they visited when traveling. After that "warm up" question, they were ready to tackle the harder question asking them to reflect on how their local museums may or may not contribute to sense of place in their own community.
A Sense of Place When Traveling
First up, the numbers. Two-thirds of respondents said yes, museums absolutely contribute to the sense of place in communities they visit. Another third responded in ways that were not clear (I'm a conservative coder, so while most probably agreed, if they were not clear then I didn't code it), and only 2% of respondents disagreed and didn't think museums contributed at all.
Given the clear, large majority agreed, it begs the question of why they felt this way. It boiled down to museum-goers wanting more than a superficial experience of a place. Instead, they wanted to dig deeper, and begin to figure out the hows and whys of a place.
In part, it was a reaction to what was described as a "mono-culture," as in this comment:
And a desire for context, as in this comment:
No surprise, history came up a lot. Respondents felt that understanding how a place came to be was vital to capturing that sense of place:
But a sense of "culture," loosely defined, was nearly as important.
For a significant number of respondents, however, it went beyond history, culture, and natural landscape/geography (a small number explicitly mentioned that) to gaining an understanding about the values of a community.
Ultimate, however, the underlying theme that came out of analyzing over 1,600 of these comments was that museums are about our shared humanity, wherever they are.
And what makes this theme of shared humanity and the human condition so important is that it is one that shows up consistently, and repeatedly, in my work … regardless of what types of museums are being considered. And I have to say, I think it is a pretty amazing thing for museums to do and to receive credit for doing.
Of course, considering how museums contribute to the sense of place to new places one visits is one thing … but what about on a local level? Does the everyday immersion of life skew one's perspective on how museums contribute to a sense of place locally? We'll look at that next.
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.