The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Beginning to Measure Meaning in Museum Experiences

Dinosaur-Ruffo221By Susie Wilkening
From Dimensions
May/June 2015

There are many lenses through which we can measure the value of a museum experience.

There is the satisfaction factor: Did visitors have a good time? Were they engaged? Do they want to return?

There are learning outcomes: Did visitors learn something new? How much did they learn? How did their experience compare to other types of learning experiences?

And there is also meaning-making: Did respondents have a meaningful experience? A memorable one? A connective experience that made them want more?

While all three of these lenses (and many others) are important, meaning-making is perhaps the toughest to measure. Yet it is, quite possibly, the one that best begins to assess the deepest impact of museums in the lives of individuals.

At Reach Advisors, a strategy, research, and predictive analytics firm based in New York and Massachusetts, we have become obsessed with measuring meaning-making in museums of all types, including science centers. It has become a primary line of inquiry in our work with the broader museum community, and what we are learning provides a great deal for science centers in particular to consider.

What the research says

Over the past several years, we have been compiling data on (1) adult memories of childhood museum experiences, collected via an online survey of visitors to all types of museums (over 29,000 responses; more than 90% of respondents were located in the United States), and (2) the most meaningful experiences visitors have had in museums as adults, collected via an online survey of children’s museum visitors (nearly 4,000 responses) and via qualitative research (nearly 300 responses); all U.S. respondents.

Over and over again, we keep bumping into the same finding in our work. When adults share with us either their most meaningful adult experience in a museum or their most memorable childhood experience, those experiences are predominantly based in the viewing of original objects.

This finding holds true when we ask young adults under the age of 30, who grew up in a world where hands-on museums were much more prevalent and who have greater expectations of hands-on experiences in museums today. It also holds true when we ask parents of young children, who do not tend to visit the more traditional museums of art, history, or even natural history that are more likely to deliver object-focused experiences. And it is true when we ask adults who are not regular museumgoers at all.

This was not exactly what we expected. We thought original object experiences would have a very strong showing, of course, but we expected hands-on experiences to be similarly strong, especially among younger adults. Since museums are heavy on object-based and/or hands-on experiences, we realized we had to look at our data much more closely and figure out the underlying themes we were uncovering. Were there differences in the quality of the memories or experiences shared? How much detail did respondents provide? Did they describe how the experiences made them feel? How evocative were their responses? Did they make any judgments about the experiences?

Adult memories of childhood museum experiences

As we analyzed over 29,000 adult memories of childhood museum experiences, we immediately noticed that respondents were three times more likely to mention an original object than a hands-on experience (just over a third versus 12%), but given that many respondents were over the age of 50, this was not a surprise. More intriguingly, however, we found that object-based memories tended to be more detailed, evocative, immersive, emotive, and personal, using words like “love,” “intrigue,” and “magic”; hands-on memories were less so, as seen in the representative examples below:

Typical object memory: “Metropolitan Museum of Art [in New York City]. I fell in love with a painting that showed a young girl reading, so I must have associated with it, since I loved to read, and still do.”

Typical hands-on memory: “I remember making plastic animals. I am sure I would have enjoyed the experience but it was too many years ago to have details in my mind.”

During coding we also flagged memories that were unusually vivid and detailed. While that sample was too small to analyze quantitatively, a review of these memories did indicate a new insight into what made experiences particularly seminal to children: They tended to be immersive experiences that skillfully combined original objects with substantive hands-on experiences that allowed for personalization, connected the object with something in the visitor’s own life, and/or created an emotional response.

“I was looking at and touching a large (room-filling) urn carved with bas relief and 3D carvings of cherubs, fruit, flowers, and giant insects, etc. I was walking around and around it with my fingers trailing over the carvings studying the details. It was a happy, tactile, interactive, and immersive experience.”

“It was a historic museum about our town and I got to help… set it up for tours. I remember getting to sit in old chairs and touching old household items and feeling really connected to the people I was learning about.”

This insight proved helpful when we began asking questions about meaningful adult experiences in museums.

Most meaningful adult museum experiences

When we began examining the most meaningful experiences adults have had in museums, we had similar findings. In our sample of over 4,000 experiences, half of responses included an original object, while only 10% included a hands-on experience. We also found that the age of the respondent was irrelevant; there were no significant differences between those under 30 and those over 50. The medium of engagement—original object or hands-on experience—did not seem to correlate with age, as we had initially hypothesized.

Additionally, the individuals who shared a hands-on experience were only half as likely to describe an emotional connection. But they were significantly more likely to feel that they had learned something, and over five times more likely to mention that the experience was fun. Both of these findings reinforce the immense value hands-on activities have for providing positive learning outcomes in a fun and engaging way. This cannot be overstated.

The overall paucity of hands-on experiences made us look extra closely at the respondents that did mention hands-on experiences. While most recounted a typical hands-on experience (such as sharing how much fun it was to touch things) or simply sharing that their experience was hands-on, a handful of these experiences were highly personal, complex, and required visitors to invest a lot of their time. They were substantive and multisensory, and of the type that museums have struggled to do well at a large scale. And they also included original objects. As in the childhood memories, when original objects are deployed with substantive hands-on experiences to create a multisensory immersive experience, the meaning-making potential appears to increase significantly.

“The Tennessee Aquarium [in Chattanooga]… was probably the best place I have ever gone. There wildlife flew just inches above our heads or swam under our hands and we could touch them. Other species willingly landed on us like the butterflies… I felt like I had been around the world and seen things I never had seen before. I felt changed. Like I was seeing God’s beauty in the raw! It was simply stunning.”

“In 2010 we spent a week in Washington, D.C. An installation at the Hirshhorn Museum was particularly memorable. (I think it is part of a series called Dark Matters.) It was a completely black room… at first… Over time I was able to see within the room, but new people entering the room could not. It meant that some museumgoers (us) would find themselves coaching others on how to navigate the room, find a seat, ‘walk here, not there,’ simply because of our shared experience, our shared humanity, and reticence, even fear, of darkness. (Others did not, remaining quiet, observing, etc) It was an experience of getting over one’s fear, and helping another person while they were experiencing that disorientation. This may sound lofty, but to me it was a visual representation of spiritual enlightenment: If you allow yourself to truly experience ‘the dark,’ eventually it is no longer dark, it is no longer a void. But you still witness others wandering, lost in the darkness. Some ‘enlightened’ people helped the new ones; others chose not to. Very interesting…”

Meaningful experiences outside museums

Our qualitative work, conducted with nearly 300 museumgoers from across the United States, only continued to reinforce these themes, though responses were much more detailed and emotional (as we would expect in qualitative work). In this research, we asked about meaningful experiences outside of museums as well as those within museums. Overwhelmingly, the experiences outside museums involved nature and/or foreign travel. These physical environments, so removed from respondents’ daily lives, seemed to heighten their awareness of their surroundings and open their eyes and minds to new thoughts, feelings, understandings, and knowledge. Once again, however, the pervasiveness of original objects was striking, such as the trees, the birds, the spices in the marketplace, and the different clothes being worn. The responses clearly supported the idea that the material world, natural or man-made, does much to define and maintain identity, not only of places but also of people.

But the nonmuseum experiences were also very different from the museum experiences because they were highly interactive and hands-on in ways unparalleled by museums. They were just as much about what the individuals were physically doing and the multisensory experiences they were having, as what they were seeing. The original objects were still an important foundation, but other sensory experiences contributed to the immersion that strengthened the experience. These highly personal experiences seemed to change people in identity-forming ways, as individuals internalized their experiences into part of who they are as people today.

“Most of my all-time satisfying times were outside. In Tahoe, snowboarding. Hiking at Yellowstone. Sitting on the seashore in Ireland. I loved being close to nature and feeling the air on my skin. It made me feel like I could do anything, accomplish anything. Those are the moments, too, when I can see things for what they are. The small things really come into perspective—the mountains become molehills again. They also were in locations that made me want to learn more about them—always got a book in those places to learn more about the history… the surroundings… the flora, etc.” 1

Making magic

All of these experiences have, at their core, the forging of deep emotional connections between the individual and other people, places, ideas, and the past. In the museum examples, especially in our qualitative work, meaningful experiences are almost an idealized realization of the museum’s mission, felt deeply by visitors who were open to the experience, absorbed what the museum had to share, internalized it intellectually, and then emotionally responded to it. Consistently, these individuals learned more about themselves as well and came out of the experience feeling humbled yet changed for the better. Stronger. Deeper. More curious. More empathetic. Changed.

The ability to provide that to visitors is an awesome gift, and the importance of it should not be taken lightly. And at the core of these most powerful experiences is the combination of object-based, multisensory, interactive experiences that, together, make magic and what we call “empathetic immersion”—powerfully immersive experiences that explore what it is to be human in our world by gaining a deeper understanding of the experiences of others.

Yet skillfully combining original objects and substantive hands-on experiences is a challenge, requiring significant time and resources not only on the part of the museum but also on the part of the visitor. Museums have to get it right, and we need to understand not only what makes a substantive hands-on experience in museums but also how museums can scale them to give more visitors the time and resources to have those experiences.

So while we continue to recommend good-quality hands-on activities and exhibits that engage visitors of all ages and provide positive learning outcomes, our work also made it clear that we needed to go back into the field to understand why most hands-on experiences in museums were not as effective at creating meaning as the multisensory experiences outside of museums, and also how we can create more substantive multisensory experiences in museums. We’ve begun that fieldwork and have started sharing our latest findings to the members of our Museums R+D research collaborative.

Additionally, we are planning future research within Museums R+D to test the hypothesis that perhaps we should expose children to more object-based experiences in museums (especially children’s museums and science centers), not at the expense of hands-on experiences but in conjunction with them. These types of experiences could potentially build on the strengths of both forms of interpretation to create the most meaningful and engaging experiences possible for children, as well as for adult audiences.

Because, in the end, what sets museums, including science centers, apart? Why do we matter? And how can we prove it? Our hypothesis, which we are testing in the field, is that it is more than the hands-on experience we create, and more than the original objects we preserve and present. It is deploying both to develop narratives that create empathetic immersion, opening the world of art, history, science, and the human condition to more and more children and adults. That matters, and museums have the capacity to do this better than anyone else.

Susie Wilkening is a Massachusetts-based senior consultant with Reach Advisors and its Museums R+D research collaborative of museums who want to understand the impact museums are capable of having in the lives of their visitors and their communities, and on society. This article is an excerpt from a larger technical report, which includes their most recent findings, provided to Museums R+D members. More information on the Museums R+D research collaborative of museums can be found at

1. From a panel of parents of children ages 5 and younger, conducted on behalf of the Atlanta History Center.

About the image: When recalling their most memorable childhood museum experience, nearly 10% of respondents to a Reach Advisors survey specifically mentioned dinosaurs. Photo by Christine Ruffo

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