I love extrinsically-motivated parents at museums. They value learning, and see museums as places that help their children. It's a great reason for these families to be at museums. And, on top of that, they likely comprise about 90% of all families that go to museums.
But for most of them, we are no longer as vital, relevant, and necessary by the time their children are in middle school. This is our failure, not theirs.
So what do we know about extrinsically-motivated parents? A couple of things:
So what, specifically, do extrinsically-motivated parents of young children want from museums? And what value do they place on museums in their life? Fortunately, my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers sheds light on all of this.
Easily Articulated Motivations
This one is easy. Learning experiences for their children is cited by the overwhelming majority of parents visiting museums. This is true of both extrinsically and intrinsically-motivated parents (intrinsically-motivated parents have extrinsic motivations as well; one doesn't preclude the other).
But what else? Having fun and spending time with family come up strongly, too. The fun part, I will admit, part of me dismisses. Sure, I'm glad children (including my own) have fun at museums, but "fun" isn't a distinctive trait to museums, and I have never seen more than a handful of parents talk about "fun" in a way that makes it so. Fun happens lots of places.
Spending time with family would, theoretically, fall into the same category as "fun." After all, it can happen anywhere. But I've changed my mind on family time, as you'll see momentarily.
Value of Museums
Here things become much more interesting. The very last question of my survey of museum-goers asked respondents to take a moment to consider the value of museums in their life.
The majority of extrinsically-motivated parents talked about education. That museums are places of learning and knowledge, as this representative comment shares:
Additionally, a significant number of parents spoke about how museums help them, essentially, raise their children. Museums are good places to visit, and provide valuable experiences for children, as this representative comment shared:
Yet extrinsically-motivated parents were much less likely to talk about broader, or deeper, impacts than other (more intrinsically-motivated) museum-goers, including intrinsically-motivated parents. Gaining an awareness or understanding of others, developing empathy, and connecting to others (whether in a community or globally) were simply less important to extrinsically-motivated parents.
Similarly, extrinsically-motivated parents were less likely to say museums were stimulating, contributed to their quality of life, had inspired them, made them more well-rounded, or been places of respite or contemplation. Interestingly, though, the idea of sparking curiosity did come up at a similar rate to other museum-goers.
But largely what I saw was museums spoken of in more clinical terms than more intrinsically-motivated museum-goers (including intrinsically-motivated parents) did. The following two comments are representative:
Typical Extrinsically-Motivated Parent Response
Typical Intrinsically-Motivated Parent Response
Extrinsically-motivated parents feel less strongly, and have fewer emotional connections to, museums. Instead, their value statement focused on how their children benefited from the learning opportunities. Intrinsically-motivated parents were more likely to think about their impact more contextually and emotively … and they were more likely to discuss how museums had affected themselves.
Now, I think it is great that extrinsically-motivated parents value learning for their children so much. I'm glad they feel that way. We can work with that.
But the lower levels of connection, emotion, and articulation of value for the deeper impact that intrinsically-motivated museum-goers experience tells me that we have far more work to do to engage this audience meaningfully. This goes back to the actual product we are offering, and how visitors respond to it both intellectually and emotionally. (Perhaps that extrinsically-motivated parents are primarily visiting children's museums, science centers, and zoos and aquaria may contribute; my research on meaningful museum experiences make clear that history and art museums develop deeper connections and more meaningful experiences with their visitors, both adults and children.)
There was one type of response that did bring in more emotive words from extrinsically-motivated parents, however: family time. Museums as fantastic places for family time. Why?
Distraction-free family time is hard to find nowadays. Note that phrase I included: distraction free. Families need these types of places, and some have realized that museums fit that need beautifully. Home is filled with the distractions of chores, homework, and screens. Taking children to enrichment activities is good for children, but not for family time, as they tend to be drop-off activities. But museums. By visiting museums, they are making a deliberate choice to be with their children in a place with limited distractions. That's gold … as these two representative comments illustrate:
But here's the problem. We lose these families by middle school as well.
So what do we do with all of this information?
First, an anecdote.
Several months ago, I visited a science center with my children. On the exterior of the building, the science center had massive banners about upcoming programs. And my poor kids. They had to stand on the sidewalk while their demented mother (me) verbally railed at how these were "the worst museum banners." (They were patient; they've seen this behavior from me before at museums.)
So what was wrong with the banners? They used words like "inspire" and "wonder."
Worst. Banners. Ever.
(OK, maybe not the absolute worst, but not that effective either.)
Now, I happen to love inspiration and wonder. So does that 5% or parents that are intrinsically motivated to learn. But guess what? We've cornered that market. And intrinsically-motivated parents are not paying attention to the banners because they are probably on the email list already and signed their kids up weeks ago. So the banners weren't helping the science center out there.
And all those extrinsically-motivated parents who were visiting (and are less likely to be on the email list)? It's not that they don't care about their children feeling inspired. It's that those are not outcomes they place the highest value on. Those banners probably washed right over them because inspiring their children doesn't fulfill their needs. Instead, if the science center had said "your kids will get ahead in science" they probably would have had far better results.
So the science center wasted the opportunity. They likely spent thousands of dollars and considerable effort on banners that didn't do a bit of good.
Now, those banners were focused on drop-off programs for children. When it comes to more general marketing, focusing on fun learning outcomes for children will likely still be more effective than talking about inspiration. If I were a marketing director, I'd be thinking long and hard about my word choice based on this research.
But distraction-free family time may well be an effective marketing tool as well. Especially as children get older and seek more independence from parents. Could adults help parents and tweens and teens build positive memories together? Can we then retain our audiences longer?
Finally, there is our product. What is the actual experience we are offering? Here, an exploration of intrinsically-motivated parents will be useful. And that is what'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.