I bet you have never heard anyone say "gee, why do so few older adults visit museums?"
I'm going to say it. Gee, why do so few older adults visit museums?
The conventional wisdom has been that older adults are more likely to visit museums than younger ones. But the data doesn't bear that out. Two broader population samples I've conducted, a national survey I ran in fall 2016 as well as AAM's Museums and America 2017 research (which I did in partnership with AAM), have shown that adults over 50 are the least likely segment of the population to visit museums. Only 29% have visited at least once in the past year, versus 45% of childless adults under 40. Adults over 75 are the least likely of all.
Actually, it makes perfect sense. Museum-goers tend to be college educated. Younger adults tend to have more education than older adults. Therefore, younger adults are more likely to visit a museum in the first place. And it appears that is exactly what does happen.
So why do we (particularly art and history museums) wring our hands and worry about the aging of our visitor bases? Well, that's true too.
Museum-going adults over 50 appear to really enjoy museums … there are just fewer of them. We are, however, doing a pretty good job of circulating them through multiple museums a year (or even in a single weekend trip). We're seeing the same people, over and over.
Thus, as my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers confirms, those that do visit museums are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, more connected to museums, more likely to be members, more likely to attend programs, and more likely to participate in fundraisers. And that's great because we are serving their needs, providing content that matters to them, and likely providing an assist to their healthy aging.
It may be fair to say we have cornered the market of museum-inclined older adults … but by no means the majority of older adults.
Let's add another, rather interesting, layer. My broader population studies also tells us that, aside from voting, older adults are less civically engaged than younger adults. They have lower levels of interest in and engagement with their local communities, and have fewer concerns about their communities. This makes sense, as I am seeing a strong correlation between museum-going and civic engagement; fewer museum-goers appears to yield lower civic engagement (and vice versa).
Yet research also shows that activities that encourage social connections (such as civic engagement) are vitally important to healthy aging. Activities that make us think also keep the brain healthy. Museums are pretty good at learning, thinking, and connecting with the human condition.
So it seems to me that museums could do a lot more with a large (and growing) population of aging adults for whom healthy aging is going to be rather important. That we could serve our communities in meaningful ways, delivering impact that all of us benefit from: seniors living healthier lives.
But to do this, we have to meet the needs and interests of broader population of seniors where they are. And we only have hints at what those needs and interests are right now. More research is needed. But I will give you one thought: a sizable chunk of those non-visitors are actually lapsed museum-goers, who took their kids to museums 30 years ago, but then we lost as the kids grew up. I call this "The Parent Bubble," and no question I'll be coming back to that one.
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 my 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.