Approach any museum-going parent or caregiver on the floor of your museum and ask them why they are there. I bet you they say things like the museum is educational, fun for kids, and/or it is a good place for the family to visit. All fantastic reasons for visiting.
But those reasons, wonderful as they are, don't really help us understand what the impact of museums are for children or their caregivers. Why? Well, impact is harder to articulate. It is harder to see. Parents and caregivers can see their kids learning and having fun, but to extrapolate out to what impact those new learnings have, well, that's harder.
Yet it matters. Deeply. Hardly anyone questions that museums are educational (97% of Americans agree they are, as we found when I did public polling for AAM). But lots of experiences are educational. Thus, if we need to make a case for why museums matter (and we do), we need to not only say we are educational, but why what we do is better than other experiences, delivering better impact.
In the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers it was important to get a better handle on impact by building on the 2017 Survey's open-ended question on impact (The overall results will be explored more thoroughly in research releases to come.)
When it comes to impact, 70% of parents said that museums helped make them more curious about the world, their top choice. This was followed by "more knowledgeable" and "more well-rounded/broadened horizons."
But the curiosity thing was, well, curious. And that's because it isn't an explicit motivation.
That is, only 21% of parents of children 10 and younger chose "curiosity" as a motivation for visiting museums … yet it was the most important impact of museums, with 71% choosing it.
Additionally, 94% of these parents say it is more important for museums to cultivate curiosity than help children perform better academically.
So what's going on? Clearly, curiosity isn't the quick-to-articular motivation for visiting museums. Those other reasons (learning, fun, family time) are more immediate, pressing, and motivating. Curiosity, while a highly valued impact, isn't any of those things but instead takes a lifetime to cultivate and benefit from.
The immediacy of those other things, and the longer-term horizon of curiosity, creates an impact/articulation gap that turns out to be really important, especially when we back up and examine this more broadly.
To start, while only 6% of museum-going parents said it was more important for museums to focus on academic achievement than curiosity, 26% of the broader population of parents said likewise. Looking at that 26% of the broader population of parents, and also the 6% of museum-going parents, was illuminating. In both samples, these respondents were significantly less likely to have a college degree. Additionally, among the museum-goers, they were nearly three times more likely to be parents of color (even when controlling for education). Both groups were also significantly less likely to cite curiosity as an impact of museums overall.
The marked difference in education in both groups (and likely, by extension, socio-economic status) is troubling, as is the difference between whites and people of color. I don't know why the difference, and I say that because I haven't asked. That is something that absolutely needs to be done.
I do, however, have a hypothesis. It is easy for well-educated museum-going parents (who are also overwhelmingly white) to say that curiosity is a necessity. That having a curious outlook yields better outcomes in life (which research does tend to support). But curiosity is expensive. It is expensive to nurture because it is an ever-hungry beast that needs resources to feed it. It needs museum visits, books, camps, and supplies. It also needs adult time and energy to feed. All of those cost parents and guardians in some way, and that makes nurturing curiosity a privilege that some parents have capacity to provide, but many cannot. (I've written some about capacity before; it bears reviewing.)
For those who are working hard to take care of their families, but have limited capacities to do more due to external constraints in their lives, it would be easy to see a direct line between academic achievement and better outcomes … even if that direct line doesn't directly take into account what motivates someone to achieve in the first place. And for respondents of color, I hypothesize that the negative economic outcomes resulting from systemic racism may have a similar result, even when educational attainment does reach the highest levels.
I also realize, however, that my hypotheses may be misguided or wrong. If so, and you have your own hypotheses, I encourage you to share them with me so that future phases of research can incorporate those ideas as well.
But given the essential birthright all of us have to curiosity, if my hypothesis is correct, it is incumbent on museums to do more to provide more opportunities to more children to cultivate curiosity … and thus benefit from it over a lifetime. That is, after all, one of the most important impacts of our work.
And how? It actually goes back to making it easy. Logistically, of course. We're not easy to visit (as we already know), and that has to get better. Reduced/free admission, such as through Museums for All, is a great start, but it also has to be about access, transportation, being welcoming to all, or going to where parents and caregivers already are. We should not underestimate the time and energy costs of visiting as well.
We also need to be an easy solution for all parents in their need to help their children succeed.
Some museums are working on this through effective partnerships (looking at you, Discovery Museum in Acton, MA, who was recently featured in the New York Times). We need more … much more … of this. But to increase the curiosity capacity in all children, low-income, middle-class, non-visiting families, and yes, our regular museum-goers we already have, we also need an overall image reboot that represents a new value proposition to parents that we are their easy solution to some of the pressures and obligations they have, as parents, in their lives.
And then we need to make it so.
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.