When I think of museum-going parents, there are two main types I think of:
Based on who responds to the surveys of different types of museums, it has been possible to make assumptions about visitation patterns by museum type. That is, since parents overwhelmingly make up the majority of science center respondents, but only a fraction of art or history museum respondents, that tells us that families are much more likely to visit science centers than art museums. We all knew this from our own, personal, observations as well.
In the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, however, I actually asked parents about their visitation patterns by museum type. Since having children, which types of museums are they visiting more, about the same, or less? And while it largely confirmed our assumptions and observations, being able to back it up with data and some of the nuance that came through this question are still helpful.
Caveats: first, memory is a funny thing, and respondents were asked to think back and make their own assessment of visitation patterns before/after kids … their memories could be wrong; and second, respondents were asked if they were visiting more/less, not if they had visited 10 times or once … which means a "more" response could still mean only one visit a year if they didn't visit that type of museum before children. Thus, this is an analysis of visitation patterns, not visitation rates.
Imagine a young couple who enjoys visiting art museums. They have a baby. What happens next? If they follow the pattern the data shows, a third of these types of visitors will cut back on their art museum visits. That's right, art museums effectively lose a third of their young adult audience when parenting begins.
Do they come back? Yes, mostly. Sort of. Among museum-going parents, many seem to have returned as regular visitors when their children reach elementary school, and by middle and high school, audiences seem to have even grown a bit.
Similarly, among the broader population of mostly non-museum-goers, young adults without children were close to twice as likely than parents to say they would be interested in visiting an art museum.
So, bottom line, parents of young children don't see art museums as family friendly, and while that changes as kids age, they never reach the intensity of participation that science centers capture.
But there is one more twist. On a city-by-city level, the results can vary widely. In a few cities, art museum attendance actually grew among families - even among families with very young children - indicating that each of those cities has an art museum doing a fantastic job with family engagement. In most cities, however, art museum engagement declined. Thus, the losses are clearly avoidable if the art museum does thoughtful and engaging work with families.
(This last finding also highlights the value of a group of museums in a community all participating in the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, creating a cost-effective, city-wide sample where deeper insights that benefit all museums in a community are possible.)
Botanical Gardens and Arboreta
Overall, botanical gardens and arboreta do much better when family formation begins: 40% of museum-going parents report visiting more often, while only 11% report cutting back. Additionally, once individuals have children, visitation patterns hold steady regardless of the age of those children.
History Museums and Historic Sites
The pattern for history museums is a bit mixed. Overall, parents are about 3 times more likely to report increased visits than fewer visits (41% vs. 13%). But that overall positive result masks challenges with families of very young children, who were only slightly more likely to report increased rather than decreased visits to history museums.
In contrast, however, parents of elementary schoolers were nearly 5 times more likely to report increased rather than decreased history museum visitation … and parents of high schoolers were 10 times more likely to report the same. In these cases, I'm thinking there is a lot of "we need to 'do' American history stuff on vacation" going on, with deliberate choices to visit things like the monuments of DC, Independence Hall, and Boston's Freedom Trail.
Natural History Museums
Similar to history museums, natural history museums netted increased visits; parents are about 5 times more likely to report increased visits rather than fewer visits (46% vs. 9%). But again, that overall result masks nuance: families with very young children were only 2.5 times more likely to increase than decrease visits, while parents of elementary-schoolers were 8 times more likely. By middle school, however, there is a slight pull back from natural history museums.
No surprise, science centers are the epicenter of museum engagement for families. A whopping 77% of parents reported increase visitation versus only 4% visiting less (a factor of 21 times, by the way). Similar to natural history museums, elementary-age families were the most likely to report increased visitation, but families of both younger and older children were on their heels.
This work only shows the pattern of attendance, the more/same/less/I don't visit patterns. That tells us a lot about what museums are perceived to be appealing for what ages of children, and if it affects museum-goer choices (it does … a lot!). But it doesn't tell us how often. Thus, looking at this data it would be easy to assume that families with tweens and teens visit science centers just as much as parents of elementary schoolers, but we all know that isn't true. Instead, it tells us that parents of tweens and teens are visiting science centers (and other museum types) more often than they did 15 or so years ago, before children. That's a different thing, which brings us too …
Young Adult Insights
This data set actually tells us a great deal about young adult museum attendance too. While the news here isn't great for art museums and family engagement, it is pretty good news in terms of engagement of younger adults without children. That is, they do relatively well with that audience before children, so they have farther to fall. In contrast, science centers clearly do extremely well with families, but the data set also implies that few young adults were visiting before children. They essentially had nowhere to go but up. Results were more mixed for the other museum types.
So, the pattern of attendance tells us a great deal about what is considered age-appropriate and how attendance changes. How often families visit, however, has a lot to do with leisure time, parental relaxation rates, and what I am calling the pain/pleasure index. We'll look at those next.
Do you value this research? Does it help you in your work at your museum? Do you want it to continue to help you and our field?
If so, consider how useful it would be to know how your museum's stakeholders feel about your museum, lifelong learning in museums, and more. By enrolling your museum in the 2019 Annual Survey of Museum Goers, you can easily benchmark the visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographics of your stakeholders. Additionally, you can compare your results to your peers, begin to track them over time, and gain far more contextual information through your custom results and report. The fee for 2019 is only $1,000 per museum.
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.