Susie Wilkening is a super-smart museum researcher, so I asked her to share some of her recent findings with ExhibiTricks readers:
"Museums are the glue that holds together families, culture, and communities." – a respondent from 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers
What is the role of museums in American society?
For me, that is the ultimate question. Nine words that include what we, as museums (including science centers, zoos, etc.), do, and why what we do matters. Nine words that leave open the possibility that we are crucial to our society having a thriving future … but also the possibility that we don’t matter at all. Nine words that guide my thinking, questioning, and research.
To begin to tackle this big question, I’ve been busy fielding both broader population samples as well as my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers.
And what did I find? Some tidbits:
Life stage matters. It isn’t everything, but it tells us a lot. For instance:
· Young adults without children are rather omnivorous in their museum-going habits. They just are not that attached to any one museum. They are also struggling to connect with their communities.
· Parents with young children are the most likely to be visiting museums (and to be members). But we lose 2/3 of them as regular museum-goers by the time middle school rolls around. That’s a problem.
· And older adults are the least likely to visit museums … yet museums could play pivotal roles in their health and wellbeing as they age.
Museums matter … to some:
- Museums benefit society. They broaden horizons, cultivate understanding, connect people and places.
- Museums benefit individuals. They spark curiosity, improve quality of life, further education, and are a place of family memories. There’s also data that museum-goers have better life outcomes as well … even when educational attainment is controlled for.
- Museums can play a critical role in social justice. Museum-goers share that museums have helped them see different perspectives and viewpoints, promoting tolerance and understanding.
Why that “to some” comment before? We fail when it comes to equal access. My data underscores the privilege that is inherent in proactively seeking out learning opportunities. The privilege of having time, energy, and money to visit a museum, visit a library, or take a hike in the woods. That doing those things is worth the investment of time, energy, and money … an assumption not all can afford to make. Until we truly live equal access, and benefits are spread more evenly across society, we are reinforcing a system of inequality. And that is an issue of social justice we must do something about. (I’ll be sharing more about this on The Data Museum later this fall.)
As I look to the research agenda for 2018, it is clear to me that there is a need to probe these issues more deeply. To assess how museums can help develop stronger communities. To staunch the losses we see among families. To contribute to the health and wellness of older adults. And to do much more to change the lives of more individuals for the better.
That means continuing to measure how and why we matter, but also changing our messaging to appeal to the extrinsic motivations most individuals have around learning. A pragmatic approach that celebrates our impact and increases our perceived value to more individuals … something I think we can all agree is necessary in these interesting times.
After all, my research tells me that we have already made a difference for millions of museum-goers. It’s time to do more.
If this work has whetted your appetite, visit The Data Museum for weekly data releases, or Wilkening Consulting’s resources page for printable Research Releases and infographic Data Stories. To learn about upcoming webinars (including one in October on the 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers) and future research releases, sign up for Susie’s newsletter.
Finally, your museum can also participate in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, contributing to that necessary broader research in the field while benchmarking your audience’s engagement and demographics.
Susie Wilkening is the principal of Wilkening Consulting, a research and Knowledge Curation firm focusing on the role of museums in society. Susie has nearly 20 years of experience in museums, including over ten years leading custom projects for museums as well as fielding groundbreaking national research on behalf of the museum field.
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