Responsive and Accessible: How Museums Are Using Research to Better Engage Diverse Cultural Communities

By Cecilia Garibay
From ASTC Dimensions
January/February 2011

In recent decades, we’ve learned about visitors at science centers and museums and how their experiences can positively impact science learning (National Research Council, 2009). Excepting Hood’s work (1981) on non–museum goers, however, little attention has been paid to those who do not typically visit museums. Only one study—Falk’s study with African Americans (1993)—focused on a specific cultural community and its museum-going habits. Yet as science centers and museums strive to better serve diverse communities, it’s increasingly important to understand these potential audiences.

Garibay Group has consulted with a range of informal learning organizations (1) to better engage ethnic-specific communities that, overall, historically do not visit science centers and museums. What we learn helps organizations understand more about non-users’ perspectives and how leisure values affect families’ choices of free-time activities. Our work also helps identify museums’ potential to provide meaningful experiences for those who may not typically visit.

This work has mainly focused on Latino families in the United States, although we’ve also worked with Vietnamese, Chinese, and African-American communities. These studies have involved focus groups with participants who do not visit museums and (for comparison) those who do. The collective data from Latino communities includes 26 focus groups and 178 respondents in 10 cities. Given space limitations, I only discuss findings from our research with Latinos, but I do provide examples of ways organizations are applying our research with various cultural communities.

Any cultural group living in the United States is, of course, quite diverse. U.S. Latinos, for example, represent more than 20 countries, include both U.S.-born and immigrant residents, and vary greatly in terms of socioeconomic status and levels of acculturation and education. Additionally, culture and cultural identity are not static, but rather dynamic, context-driven processes. When interpreting research and its implications, it’s important to understand the specific segment of a cultural group participating in the research and the contextual issues within specific communities.

Space limitations prevent a detailed discussion of the context of each project and community. In general, however, studies took place in large cities. Participants were primarily working-class adults (some middle-class) with children. The communities included a range of first- and second-generation (2) Latinos, some Spanish language–dominant and others English-dominant.

Values that influence leisure choices

Several key values that influence Latino parents’ leisure choices emerged across our studies.

Promotes and maintains family unity. The social dimension of leisure was important to respondents. Leisure outings, however, were also about being “attentive” to family needs, nurturing the family unit, and building family cohesion. Therefore, activities considered accessible to the entire family, regardless of age, ranked highly. Fostering family unity seemed especially important to respondents in lower socioeconomic situations; due to parents’ heavy work schedules (e.g., working two jobs or six days a week), these families had limited time together.

Provides some benefit in addition to relaxation. Respondents often characterized their leisure choices in terms of benefits accrued from an activity. Although relaxation was important, leisure had the broader purpose of taking care of oneself. Engaging in sports, for example, was seen as being good for one’s body, while church was described as providing spiritual nourishment.

Has educational merit. Respondents highly valued leisure activities perceived to be educational, particularly for their children. All other things equal, leisure activities with perceived educational benefits were more likely to be selected. Education, however, was defined quite broadly and could include providing children with new experiences, developing new skills, or fostering moral and social values.

In addition, we found that respondents were consistently more likely to participate in activities if they: a) perceived them as being interactive, and b) understood the context and felt comfortable.

Perceptions of museums

On the positive side, respondents perceived museums as educational places and valued that aspect, especially for their children. Some respondents saw museums (particularly history and art museums) as preservers of the past and, in some cases, as places of inspiration and beauty.

While participants valued the educational aspect of science centers, museums, and zoos, most respondents did not consider recreational or social dimensions of museum visitation. In fact, most saw museums as boring, too quiet, or staid. Participants, overall, also found the content inaccessible and difficult to understand. Museums were seen as passive and not conducive to free play and exploration; some respondents likened museums to libraries. Respondents considered science centers and children’s museums more interactive than other museums and saw zoos as slightly more family friendly, but in general, viewed these institutions as places with multiple rules of behavior.

Additional barriers included lack of cultural relevance and not feeling welcome or represented—which included not seeing other visitors or staff like them. Language also proved important. First-generation respondents noted that bilingual labels helped them understand an exhibit, while second-generation respondents—all fluent in English—valued bilingual text because it “signaled” that the venue welcomed Latinos.

Interactivity and “decoding”

Based on these data, we developed a perceptual map to visually represent the relative position of various leisure activities and venues, and to chart where informal learning environments fit into participants’ schemas. We mapped two key characteristics from the data: the degree to which an activity was considered “active” and the perceived level of knowledge or information needed to participate in an activity.

Some museums (e.g., art) fell on the more passive end of the axis while science centers, children’s museums, and zoos mapped as somewhat more interactive. Nonetheless, as a whole, these places were all considered less active than venues such as amusement parks.

All museum types placed at the top of the axis relating to knowledge, indicating that they were perceived as enigmatic places with their own sets of rules, requiring much contextual knowledge. This context involves not only knowing the “basics” of visiting a specific venue, but also, at a deeper level, understanding the “culture” of that type of activity, including understanding accepted norms of behavior, knowing how to structure a visit, and feeling confident enough to engage in that activity. Thus, understanding the “context” or implicit codes of a given activity or venue emerged as a critical factor in how respondents chose leisure activities and proved to be a major barrier to museum visitation. Because people want to feel in control when selecting leisure activities, most of us will engage in activities that we already understand or that require little “decoding.”

How museums are using these findings

Organizations we worked with have used our research on non–museum goers to develop more meaningful experiences for a broader audience. The ways in which organizations have used findings varies depending on the particular community context, resources, and goals. We’ve also used findings to work with these organizations on ways their own institutional cultures can change to better foster inclusion.

The Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo, for example, used study findings to inform their membership and marketing efforts. Whereas membership and direct mail materials had previously emphasized animals, they now featured photos of families to highlight the social dimension of visits and their educational value for children. In bilingual materials, the zoo included detailed information on fees, parking, and food options (highlighting picnicking opportunities). Staff also formed a Latino community advisory group. Since the initiative began, Latino family zoo membership has grown by about 2,000 households. Findings have also helped staff reflect on previous assumptions about families’ makeup, values, and needs, as well as ways offerings need to change to better serve diverse families.

At the Exploratorium, San Francisco, where research included both Latino and Chinese communities, public programs department staff spearheaded and experimented with bi- and multilingual programs. The program Ancient Observatories: Chichen Itza focused on a compelling science topic (the Mayan archaeological site in Mexico) and included a series of bilingual (Spanish/English) cultural activities. The Science of Dragon Boats program selected a cultural topic relevant to the Chinese community and presented science activities and demonstrations in Chinese and English. Magnitude X: Preparing for the Big One—presented in a multilingual format (Chinese, English, and Spanish)—highlighted relevance to the daily life of Bay Area residents rather than any culture-specific activities. Flyers and other materials emphasized the program’s interactive and family-oriented nature. All three events successfully drew families from their targeted communities. While sustaining this level of programming has not been easy and balancing competing institutional priorities with community expectations is a challenge, these programs served as a catalyst in examining institutional commitment to serving diverse communities. The organization is currently developing multilingual strategies to more deeply engage Latino and Chinese families.

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (CDM), California, has a long history of working to engage Latino families and, more recently, the Vietnamese community. Efforts have included developing culturally specific programming such as the Three Kings Day celebration traditionally observed in Mexico and the Children of the Dragon event celebrating Vietnamese heritage. The exhibition Secrets of Circles incorporated cultural artifacts to illustrate how circles are found everywhere. Our research, however, illuminated subtle generational differences within cultural groups that are important to consider in inclusion efforts. For example, many new immigrant parents are most comfortable when the museum engages them through community-based grassroots efforts within their own, largely Vietnamese-speaking neighborhoods. These experiences have also led CDM to consider the importance of institutional culture; staff is currently working on instilling guiding principles within the organization to support values of diversity and inclusion.

The examples above highlight ways museums can use research to better engage diverse communities. Identifying leisure values and choices allows informal learning organizations to position their offerings for different cultural communities. Understanding barriers to visitation is also essential to engaging diverse communities, and efforts to overcome these barriers must go beyond program development and marketing. To be truly successful, inclusion requires deep shifts in organizational assumptions, infrastructure (such as staffing and approaches to interpretation), and institutional culture.

Cecilia Garibay is principal of Garibay Group, Chicago.


Bell, P., B. Lewenstein, A.W. Shouse, and M.A. Feder, eds. Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 2009.

Falk, J. Leisure Decisions Influencing African American Use of Museums. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1993.

Hood, M. Leisure Criteria of Family Participation and Non-participation in Museums. Columbus, Ohio: Hood Associates, 1981.


1. Organizations have included, for example, the Exploratorium, San Francisco; Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, California; the Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo, Illinois; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York; the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; and the Palm Springs Art Museum, California.

2. I adopt the definitions of “generation” used by the Pew Hispanic Center. “First generation” is defined as someone born outside the United States. “Second-generation” refers to someone born in the United States to immigrant parents.

About the image: In this perceptual map, leisure activities and venues are mapped according to Latino parents’ perceptions of their interactivity and of the knowledge needed to successfully access them. As a whole, respondents considered informal learning environments to be passive, enigmatic places. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)