What I have to say may sound harsh.
Museums are failing families.
Or, more specifically, museums are failing extrinsically-motivated families.
Museums of all types.
In my last research release, I shared the broad numbers behind what I call The Parent Bubble. In short, by middle school we only retain a third of museum-going families as regular museum-goers. But now, let's get down to the numbers by museum type.
First, no one expects children's museums to retain family audiences into middle and high school. But that doesn't mean children's museums are off the hook. Children's museums attract broader audiences of extrinsically-motivated parents, but those parents are the second crabbiest museum visitor in my research. They enjoy seeing their kids learn through play, but aside from that, they are, well, bored. If they equate museum visits as being for their kids, and with boredom, that isn't conducive to interesting them in visiting a variety of museums as well. (I realize children's museums work hard to create experiences to engage parents and children together, but my research indicates not as much of that is engaging parents as meaningfully as we would like.)
Which brings me to point number two for children's museums: their role in encouraging parents to visit a variety of museums. I've heard children's museum professionals tell me that they see part of their work as being a "practice" museum for families, so that families then go off and visit a variety of museums throughout childhood. In my research, there is very little evidence that this happens (and far more evidence that it doesn't happen for most families). Yes, children's museums are a fantastic pipeline for science centers, and to a more limited degree for natural history museums, but not art or history museums. If they were, we likely wouldn't see the significant losses in family audiences over time. Finally, since the long-term losses come almost entirely from extrinsically-motivated parents, it also tells me that children's museums are not cultivating an intrinsic desire to learn among families (this specific research doesn't inform whether they are among children specifically).
This one I looked at very closely. In theory, science centers are for all ages. In practice, families with children 10 and younger. How do I know?
If science centers were serving families with children of all ages, then 40% of all families should be families with tweens and teens. But when I looked at regular visitors to science centers from my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, they comprised only 21%. When it comes to losses, which is a different way of looking at it, that means 58% of families with children 10 and younger that visit science centers regularly have dropped into casual or non-visitation by middle and high school.
And the crabbiest museum-goer of all? The parent of a tween or teen at a science center. Oh, goodness, they are not thrilled to be there. A sense that they are done.
We could argue that losses are to be expected as children grow up and become involved in other activities. But this isn't necessarily true, as my data also shares that the losses come almost exclusively from extrinsically-motivated parents; intrinsically-motivated parents stick with museums (including art and history museums).
And if science centers were truly for all ages, wouldn't they at least retain the parents? Doesn't happen.
Art and History Museums
The story changes dramatically for art and history museums. In contrast to science centers, these museums slightly grow their audiences from families with young children to families with tweens and teens … though it isn't clear if parents of tweens and teens are visiting with or without their children (probably a mixture).
Why the growth? Parents of young children that visit art and history museums regularly are four times more likely to say they visit for their own learning opportunities than their peers that visit science centers regularly. Four times. (This response didn't preclude also selecting a response about children's learning opportunities.)
Other responses in the survey make it clear that art and history museums do an excellent job attracting intrinsically-motivated parents. Parents who visit with their children, not just for their children.
That's the problem. As I shared last fall, intrinsically-motivated parents are only a small sliver of parents. I just don't see a lot of that (much) broader audience of extrinsically-motivated parents at art and history museums. Why? A few reasons come to mind:
Now, it doesn't matter that we, and even most intrinsically-motivated parents, think #1 and #3 are dead wrong. Or that data supports the long-term benefits of art, history, and culture in promoting understanding, cultural competency, critical thinking, and so on. Doesn't matter. Because most extrinsically-motivated parents don’t necessarily see it that way. And they don't visit.
So art and history museums have not only done a poor job of broadening their audience by attracting parents in The Parent Bubble, they have also done a poor job providing evidence that what they fundamentally do matters to children, families, and even communities or society.
Now that I have taken you to the depths of despair, it's time to pull you back out. We have a sense of the challenges, now let's take some time to learn more about these extrinsically-motivated parents that make up The Parent Bubble, so we can start to do something about it. That's next.
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.