In our ideal world, everyone who visits museums wants to be there. They are curious, engaged with the content, and leave feeling emotionally and intellectually satisfied. Maybe changed.
That ideal vision hits ice-cold reality when it comes to the audience segment most likely to visit museums: parents. The most critical, crabby, disengaged, unhappy museum-goers of all (as made clear in my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers).
And here's the hardest part for us to hear: it is an audience that disappears on us. Two-thirds of museum-going families with young children drop out of regular visitation by the time children are in middle school. And we lose the parents too.
So … most likely to visit, but not happy, and disappearing. Why? How? What?
There's a lot to unpack here, so over the next several research releases, I'll be exploring the complicated audience known as parents. Because it seems they have a love-hate relationship with museums.
To start off, let's first take a look more broadly.
From my work with AAM's Museums and America 2017 research, I know that parents are 50% more likely than those without minor children to have visited a museum in the past year. That means there are a lot of parents who, before children, didn't go to museums, but began going when children entered their lives. It also indicates that once children grow up, visitation drops back off (which is, indeed, what we see … a bubble).
But the real surge in attendance comes from parents of children 10 and younger; visitation rates drop dramatically for parents of children 11 and older. I'll pick that apart in a later release.
Parents that visit museums are simply far more likely to be extrinsically motivated than other regular museum-goers … 50% more likely. Indeed, they are the significant majority of all extrinsically-motivated museum-goers.
Yet these parents are at museums. Why? Fundamentally, it comes down to one value statement: museum-going parents place a high value on learning. An extremely high value.
But placing a high value on learning sometimes can have nothing to do with an intrinsic motivation to learn. Some parents have that as well, but they are the minority of these parents.
Instead, these parents view learning as a means to an end to accomplish other things, such as educational success, job security, better jobs, higher incomes, etc. By bringing their children to museums, they are hoping to help their children get ahead.
This doesn't mean they don't value learning for its own sake; it isn't a zero-sum game. But it does mean that extrinsic motivations are greater than intrinsic motivations. So if museums help their children become more curious, or have stronger intrinsic motivations to learn about something, that is likely an outcome they are pleased about. It just isn't their primary reason for visiting.
And the reverse is true for intrinsically-motivated parents. They want their children to have the skills and knowledge to get ahead in life as well … but they place an even higher value on cultivating curiosity and intrinsic motivations in their children.
But here's the challenge: extrinsically-motivated parents greatly outnumber intrinsically-motivated ones. Last fall, I shared the following graphic about the broader population of parents, and my more recent, deeper work generally upholds it. There are just not that many intrinsically-motivated parents.
When parents are extrinsically motivated, visitor satisfaction rates plummet. Why? Well, extrinsically-motivated parents are not choosing to be there for themselves. This is all about their children. Since it isn't an activity they would otherwise choose, is it any wonder they are the most critical audience segment?
This is particularly true of children's museums and science centers, which receive a disproportionate number of extrinsically-motivated parents. At these museums, only one in five parents consider their own intrinsic motivations for visiting … and I see the lowest satisfaction rates of all. The most critical, crabbiest parent of all is actually the parent of a middle-schooler visiting a science center, followed by parents of toddlers at either children's museums and science centers.
There is a flip-side to this finding, however: lower visitor satisfaction rates can be an indicator of a museum reaching a broader audience. Parents at history and art museums may be happier, but there are far fewer of them. Which means there are challenges for museums of all types to engage parents.
Compared to other regular museum-goers, parents do not feel as connected to their communities. This pattern makes sense, as in my broader work, I'm finding that avid museum-goers have the deepest community ties. Since most museum-going parents are not avid museum-goers (at least, not without their young children), it makes sense that they have lower levels of connection.
But there is one concern they have that stood out: they are concerned that people just don't seem to know their neighbors. This may indicate a latent desire to connect in a busy, mobile world … and they don't know how to make that connection.
(I'll be coming back to community engagement and museum-going, but for now, the important part to remember is that museum-going parents don't feel as connected to their communities as other regular museum-goers. For a sneak-peek on my thoughts on community engagement, please see my review of Place Attachment on The Curated Bookshelf.)
Over the next several research releases, I'll unpeel the many layers of museum-going parents, from who they are, to why it is good to be a selfish parent, to putting real numbers behind the audience losses museums experience as children grow up.
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.
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.