Understanding. Empathy. Tolerance. Museums have the capacity to connect us to humanity. To make us consider different viewpoints. Become aware of different life experiences. To not fear "the other" so much. To be compassionate.
In my opinion, these are some of the most important impacts museums have in our society. Our ability to open individuals up to caring about others. And after working in this field for 20 years, I know many of you feel likewise.
Happily, when I asked regular museum-goers in the 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers to share with me the value of museums in their life, 21% were able to articulate, and convey to me, similar feelings. That museums had made them more open-minded. More accepting. And better able to navigate a complicated world because of their experiences in museums. (Since this was from coding of an open-ended question, 21% is a lot.)
But this impact wasn't consistent among museum-goers. While a quarter of the most intrinsically motivated museum-goers spoke of these themes (as well as a quarter of young adults without children), only a tenth of parents of young children (10 and younger) said likewise. But then, as I'll share in a few weeks, that is the most extrinsically motivated segment of museum-goers.
So it seems that intrinsically-motivated learners care more about these goals than, I suspect, the more extrinsically-motivated broader population. Which makes what I am about to share make much more sense, as much as I don't like the results.
Preparing for two pending projects dealing with institutionalized racism and LGBTQ history, I fielded test questions asking the broader population about the appropriateness of museums sharing these histories.
A third of respondents said yes, unambiguously when it came to the LGBTQ history of a historic site. A history of institutionalized racism in a community was more complicated, with a third saying yes, but some of the respondents equivocating more, saying "carefully." ("Carefully" may have seen as a "safe" response when they didn't really want to say "yes, absolutely." Thus, it could really mean a "no.")
But that means that nearly two-thirds of respondents said, effectively, "no." Two thirds. That museums should not be tackling these issues. It pains me that not only was I not surprised at this finding, but that I expected it. Though I will confess I was surprised that the LGBTQ approval was more definitive than that of institutionalized racism.
Given how museum-goers, overall, responded, I suspect they are much more likely to fall in the "yes, absolutely" camp than non-visitors. Museums likely are not running much risk of turning off most of their core audiences (some perhaps, but not most, as I shared in my last research release).
Yet if we are working to expand our reach to broader audiences, working on social justice issues may turn off those very same new audiences. It's a bit of a Catch-22, as doing it appears to mean preaching to the choir, while not doing it is morally wrong.
But putting numbers and data to the question … it helps. It helps because it means we are not going into these areas of work blindly. We are better prepared for challenges. For friction. We can have more confidence in doing social justice work, while also respond more quickly to criticisms.
As I mentally prepare for these projects (pending funding), I'm considering ways that I can probe that 2/3 of the population more closely. What questions do I need to ask to understand the why behind their answers. What life experiences are they coming from that make them say "no?" And what would it take to change their minds (realizing we are realistically only going to change some of them)?
And by pushing social justice issues more in our work, will we also open up new audiences as well? I suspect yes … and in ways that may make our work more meaningful to more people.
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.