By Susie Wilkening
From ASTC Dimensions
Go to any science museum on a Saturday morning, and a sight awaits you. Children, in particular, are exploring science while having a great time. But what is going on in the heads of the adults, especially the parents, at the science museum? Are they equally engaged, or do they feel that more could be done to captivate their interests and their intellect?
This year, working with ASTC, Reach Advisors, a marketing strategy and research firm based in Slingerlands, New York, set out to explore the motivations and engagement levels of visitors to science museums. When we examined the data, however, we were particularly surprised by the thoughts and expectations of mothers who visit with their children.
In early 2008, Reach Advisors and ASTC designed a survey to delve into a number of issues of visitor satisfaction and motivations. We then worked with 50 ASTC-member science museums in four countries (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia) to survey their core visitors. Each museum invited those on their e-mail list to take the survey. The e-mail lists included but were not limited to museum members. Over 14,400 respondents completed the survey, with 58 percent of survey-takers responding to the invitation of a science center, 13 percent to a children’s museum, 11 percent to a natural history museum, and the balance to other museums that did not fall neatly into any of the above categories. In this article, “science museum” is used as an umbrella term to refer to all these different kinds of museums.
Two-thirds of respondents are parents of minor children, 73 percent of respondents are female, and the respondent base is considerably more affluent and well educated than the general public in all four countries. Most respondents (88 percent) are white.
Respondents overwhelmingly believe their local science museum is “very trustworthy” (84 percent). Additionally, nearly half (47 percent) visit the museum four or more times a year. Nearly three out of five believe that the museum does a good job engaging children “of all ages.” Yet there are challenges, too. When asked what their science museum does particularly well, and instructed to choose the options most important to them, only 8 percent of respondents say they feel that the staff cares about them, and only 14 percent of respondents report that the museum helps bring the community together. These two statistics are consistent with our previous research within the museum field.
Perception: Science centers are for kids
Overall, there is a genuine sense among respondents that science centers in particular (and, to a lesser extent, natural history museums) are designed for children, not adults. (Children’s museums are also perceived, not unexpectedly, as being for children, but adults do not have as much of an expectation that a children’s museum can, or should, strengthen adult offerings, in contrast with science centers.) And when asked what audiences are served best by the museum, respondents overwhelmingly say children and their families, followed by students. Just over a fifth say adults, while the response for teens is even lower.
The desire of respondents for additional programming correlates directly with their life stage, especially parenthood. That is, respondents in their 20s want more programming for adults, respondents in their 30s want more for younger children, respondents in their 40s want more for older children, and respondents in their 50s want more for adults.
Moms: The big challenge
As we dug through the data, it became clear: Moms are a challenge. While they make up 44 percent of survey respondents, their level of engagement does not match that of adults visiting without minor children. Overall, compared with the general public, moms in their 30s and 40s are a well-educated and affluent audience, and most of the moms responding to the survey have children in elementary and/or middle school. They visit a lot; most visit four or more times a year. But unlike the nonparents responding, moms visit for their children. Four out of five moms visit for learning opportunities for their children, two-thirds because their children like to visit, and over half for family time. The focus is entirely on the kids.
What is missing here? Mom’s interests. Moms rarely write about their own interests in their written-in comments. And who is also missing here? Dad. Very few fathers responded to the survey.1 Dads do not come up in the moms’ written-in comments, either. Dads’ interests and engagement are clearly not a priority.
When it comes to membership, moms are budget oriented. Nearly 60 percent of moms join because their memberships pay for services received, and just over half join to save money. Moms cite philanthropic reasons for supporting the museum (such as helping to improve the museum or supporting community organizations) significantly less often than budget reasons.
Moms are also significantly less curious than the topline, or overall, average, with only a third identifying themselves as curious and loving to learn about science. Additionally, moms are significantly less likely to enjoy visiting other types of museums. They only sometimes feel that the science museum makes them better informed, but they want the science museum to inspire them to explore and learn more.
Ultimately, we found that, for the most part, moms are simply not that happy at the science museum. Only a third feel the museum meets the needs of their families. Moms are also generally more negative than other audience segments about the museum, and overwhelmingly think the science museum is for children, not adults.
We believe that moms make themselves second-class visitors at science museums. It is not something the museum does, but a position that moms put themselves in. This became clear when we read the moms’ written-in comments, where most moms write about their children and rarely about themselves and their own interests. But moms do not have to be second-class visitors. They can be engaged as well, without sacrificing any of the experience of their children. Our fear is that if a museum doesn’t engage moms, their ambivalence about the museum will subconsciously rub off onto their children, causing them to stop asking to go to the museum at an earlier age than they would otherwise. Additionally, this may prevent the family from moving on to visit other types of museums, a metric that we are finding to be terribly important, as explained below.
The bottom line on Mom is that she is there for the kids, but not for herself. She is not that engaged, and we need to engage her, her interests, and her intellect, for long-term sustainability. Instead, moms are going through a pattern of cycling in and cycling out of certain types of museums rather than making a lifelong commitment to museums. What we need are more Museum Advocate moms.
Reach Advisors has coined four terms to describe people by their relationships with museums: General Public, Casual Visitor, Core Visitor, and Museum Advocate. When we look at demographic profiles of museum visitors and the General Public, we find that a large part of the public does not interact with museums much at all. Within that sphere is a somewhat smaller group of individuals, Casual Visitors, who may visit a museum while on vacation, or for a specific event or exhibition, but generally does not make visiting museums a part of their lives.
Core Visitors make up an even smaller segment of the public. They are individuals who do visit museums on a regular basis, are members, are on e-mail lists, and respond to surveys. Core Visitors think museums are important, but they do not exhibit a strong emotional connection to museums.
The smallest segment of the public, Museum Advocates, does feel this emotional connection to museums. Museum Advocates are engaged, curious individuals who love to learn and who choose to visit a wide variety of museums in their leisure time.
When we look at the museum visitation patterns of Museum Advocates as they go through life stages, and compare those patterns with those of Core Visitors, we find that they are quite different. Museum Advocates typically grow up going to museums, and when they become parents, they take their children to a wide variety of museums from an early age. They layer on new types of museums as they become age appropriate, but generally do not drop any museums from their lives.2 This creates a lifelong museum habit that Museum Advocates embrace, and it creates a pattern of visiting, and supporting, a wide variety of museums. Museum Advocates are omnivorous museum-goers.
Core Visitors have a markedly different pattern. They tend to take young children to children’s museums and zoos, but they start this at a later age than Museum Advocates, who often begin bringing their children to museums during infancy. Core Visitors then progress to science centers, while continuing with zoos. But as their children get older, they may only sporadically visit museums, dropping back into casual visitation. The cycle repeats itself, with Core Visitor children repeating it as parents, and parents repeating it as grandparents, cycling in and out of museums without making a sustained commitment.
To find the Museum Advocate moms in our sample, we ran a filter for moms in their 30s and 40s who identify themselves as curious and who feel that adults are well served at the museum.3 In the Reach Advisors–ASTC study, only 7 percent of moms meet these criteria. While we undoubtedly filtered out a few Museum Advocate moms with this method, this still indicates a very low proportion of Museum Advocates. In contrast, in our study of Connecticut Cultural Consumers, which surveyed mainly visitors to history-based and art museums, nearly half of moms responding were Museum Advocates. When we examined the data based on type of museum, we found that 11 percent of moms responding to natural history museums in the survey are Museum Advocates. The number falls to 6 percent for moms responding to children’s museums. Moms responding to science centers match the topline results of 7 percent.
Having low percentages of Museum Advocates is not all bad, however. Museums with high densities of Core Visitors tend to be museums that have lower perceived barriers of entry. They have an easier time attracting broader audiences, and a greater opportunity to reach Core Visitors and work to convert them to Museum Advocates. Museums with much higher densities of Museum Advocates, such as art or historic house museums, seem to have a bigger challenge reaching broader audiences, as Core Visitors perceive higher barriers of entry to those museums. But why are Museum Advocates so important to science museums?
Museum Advocate moms are dream visitors
When we examined the responses of our Museum Advocate moms, and compared them with Core Visitor moms, we were astounded at the differences. Just over half of Museum Advocate moms feel the museum that sent them the survey request meets their family’s needs, significantly more than the 35 percent of moms in the overall sample who feel this way. Generally, these moms are more positive than the other moms about the science museum, being twice as likely to believe that the museum presents science well and also about twice as likely to feel there is always something new to see or do at the museum. They are significantly more likely to support their local science museum for philanthropic reasons, implying that they are more likely to be donors as well as members. Also, they are twice as likely to support the museum because they like to support science organizations.
There is even more good news with these engaged moms. When compared with the entire sample of moms, they are three times more likely to believe the museum serves teens and adults well. They are also twice as likely to believe the staff cares and that the museum brings the community together. Museum Advocate moms are twice as likely to feel that the museum makes them better informed and even more likely than the overall average to believe the museum is trustworthy (and the topline is 84 percent).
Dream visitors, indeed.
Museum Advocate moms also enjoy visiting a wider variety of museums than Core Visitor moms. They are much more likely to report enjoying science centers, natural history museums, history-based museums, art museums, botanical gardens and arboretums, and nature centers.
As we examined this data, and compared it with our other research on Museum Advocates, it became clear that this omnivorous consumption of museums is really important. Museum Advocate moms are creating new generations of Museum Advocates, and their engagement and involvement create a more sustainable and continued level of support, not only for science museums, but also for the museum field as a whole.
Creating more Museum Advocates
So how do we create more of these dream visitors? How do we not only grow new generations of Museum Advocates, but also convert Core Visitor moms into Museum Advocate moms?
When we closely examined the data, and compared Core Visitor moms with Museum Advocate moms in a number of our studies, some key differences became clear. Although there are no identifiable demographic differences, there are important behavioral differences. Museum Advocate moms are forthrightly seeking different kinds of experiences than Core Visitor moms, and the key difference, and driver, is narrative. When we compare the written-in comments of Museum Advocate moms with those of Core Visitor moms, both in this study and in our study of Connecticut Cultural Consumers, we find a much stronger emphasis on narrative in the comments of Museum Advocate moms.
Museum Advocate moms are specifically seeking out narrative experiences to go with hands-on experiences. There is no question that hands-on experiences are desired, and there is no question that they are an important form of learning. But the narrative experience is just as important to these moms, and Museum Advocate moms seek out both. Core Visitor moms, in contrast, focus primarily, and often solely, on the hands-on experiences that they believe engage, educate, and entertain their children.
For this reason, we believe it is incredibly important for museums that excel with hands-on experiences, such as science centers and children’s museums, to further integrate narrative into the museum, and we strongly encourage these museums to work with narrative-based museums, including history museums, historic sites, and art museums, to make this happen. By working together, narrative-based museums and hands-on museums can build on each other’s strengths, increasing engagement and visitation. We believe working together will not only help raise new generations of Museum Advocates, but also pave the way to emotionally engaging Core Visitor moms and converting them into Museum Advocates. Narrative hooks seem to be key to engaging visitors emotionally, and that is the leap we want Core Visitor moms to make. Additionally, it will help science museums reach a larger network of adult audiences that may not now visit. Everyone wins by working together: the museums, the children, and the moms.
Science museums are fantastic places, and the respondents to the survey clearly believe in the work done by science museums. But when we peeled back the data, we found a gap with moms who feel that the science museum is important to their child’s enrichment, but are not as engaged themselves. By working with narrative-based museums to provide stories and emotional hooks to connect with both children and adults, and by layering that content, as well as content that is more appropriate to adults, onto the fantastic hands-on experiences already available, science museums can serve family audiences even better.
Susie Wilkening is senior consultant and curator of museum audiences at Reach Advisors, Slingerlands, New York.
This short article only scratches the surface of the results from this study. For more of the results, please check the Reach Advisors blog at http://reachadvisors.typepad.com and click on the category “Science Museum Visitors.”
About the image: Mothers made up 44 percent of respondents to the Reach Advisors–ASTC survey. Photo courtesy Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
- Those fathers who did respond tended to be parents of highly engaged teens. This may indicate that the involvement of Dad correlates to an interest in science in teens, which would make Dad a rather important figure.
- Art museums, which do see a drop in visitation from even Museum Advocates while their children are toddlers, are the exception. However, Museum Advocates return to art museums when their children are about 6 or 7 years old, while Core Visitors generally wait until their kids are about 9.