The Parent Bubble.
It is something we have all seen in our work in museums. Adults that, before children, don't visit museums much (perhaps casually, perhaps not at all), and then flood into zoos, aquaria, children's museums, and science centers when they have children.
But by the time their children reach middle school, we've lost the majority of parents as regular museum-goers (dropping into casual visitation), and a fifth we have lost entirely.
I have already alluded to these patterns, but let's dig into the hard numbers.
General museum attendance.
Let's look at what national research says. In AAM's Museums and America 2017 polling (in partnership with Wilkening Consulting), we asked a broader population sample of 2,021 Americans if they had been to a museum in the past year. We made clear this includes zoos, science centers, historic sites, etc., so a broad definition with a low threshold of just one visit.
Of that broader population sample, parents were the most likely segment of the population to have visited a museum in the past year. About half, versus only a third of adults without children.
But digging deeper is where it gets interesting. First off, I noticed that parents of tweens and teens were less likely than parents of younger children to have visited a museum in the past year. I then ran the numbers to compare museum-going rates among parents of children 10 and younger, and parents of older children, and found that the net is that we lose a fifth of these family visitors entirely by middle school.
That is, a fifth of families with young children that visit at least one museum/year today will not be visiting any museums at all by middle school. And we lose the parents as well.
Yet there is another wrinkle that makes this even more interesting. Political persuasion. When I looked through the lens of political persuasion, the losses were entirely among conservative and moderates … while moderates drop out at the overall rate of a fifth, a quarter of conservative families drop out entirely. In clear contrast, however, we actually gain liberal families by middle and high school (up 4% from when children are younger). Fascinating.
Frequency of visitation.
Given these losses more broadly, I went back to my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers to put a number to similar losses I was seeing in that data set. In this case, losses were from frequent museum-going families that are members and/or regular museum-goers while children are young, shifting to casual or non-visitors by middle school. (Note my current research doesn't shed light on whether they are going less frequently or not at all, though I have reason to believe it is more of the former.)
Here, however, the losses were even greater. Two thirds of regular museum-goers with young children fall back to casual or non-visitation by middle school. Two thirds.
And those losses? Almost entirely coming from children's museums and science centers. Art and history museums show far more consistent visitation among family visitors throughout childhood … they just see far fewer of the families in the first place. I'll discuss this in more detail in my next research release.
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.