So why do museums matter?
Do they matter because they educate the children and adults they visit?
They do. But so does a good documentary, a well-informed book, a kitchen-based science experiment, or an online class.
Do they matter because they provide a nice day out for families and friends?
They do this too. But so does a day at the park, a visit to a good restaurant, or even a trip to the mall.
Do they matter because they are repositories of our physical world, from natural specimens to the objects that make us human?
They are, and the public does give museums some credit for this, though it is unclear how much most people actually care that this happens at all.
Do they matter because they are financial engines for a community?
Let's be honest with ourselves. Restaurants, hotels, office buildings, and shopping centers can also make the same argument. And how many museums have this as part of their mission anyway?
We think there’s much more to be said about the value of museums.
But here’s the thing. There has never been deep, comprehensive research into how museums have changed lives and communities for the better.
We all have anecdotes. Some are from our own lives. Others from visitors who have shared deeply meaningful experiences with us. But as wonderful as anecdotes are for illustrating how museums can make a difference, if they are not backed up with deeper data, greater evidence, they are simply anecdotes.
In a world where competition for philanthropy and public support is becoming stiffer, building an evidence-backed case that museums make a difference matters.
In a world where there is increasing competition for leisure time, even education-based leisure time, understanding the differentiating factors that museums have for creating deeply meaningful experiences matters.
In a world where we are bombarded with information, objects, and virtual experiences, authentic and well-curated engagement with history, art, nature, and science matters.
And in a world where everything can increasingly be measured, from test scores to Yelp ratings, not understanding (and not clearly articulating) how and why museums matter means ceding control of our destinies to critics, competitors, and even those who publicly question our moral value in a world with so much need.
What the museum field needs is robust research and development to provide answers to some of our most pressing challenges.
Work that goes far beyond evaluation, and work that goes far beyond what one museum does (or, for that matter, what one museum can fund).
In an environment of increasing pressure, this work is too important to put off any longer.
It is time for the field to come together, pool resources of time and, yes, money, to field research that examines deeply why some people choose museums, why others do not, and how museum experiences can change lives and communities.
It is time to provide evidence that what we do matters, and to use that evidence to articulate clearly our value to an increasingly skeptical public.
And it also time to carefully assess our role in the lives of individuals, now and in the future, so that museums are poised to become more important, more meaningful, more engaging, and more valued in our lives and in our communities.
We’ve been hungry to do this work on behalf of museums. And we propose a solution. Museums R+D.
Reach Advisors: Museums R+D is a national research and development membership program consisting of museums who want to understand the impact they are capable of having in the lives of their visitors and their communities and, as a field, the impact museums have on society.
These members seek to understand new ways of engaging more individuals in museum experiences that are transformational, having the greatest impact possible. And they do this together, sharing ideas supported by solid yet provocative research with visitors and the general public, helping member museums do more with the resources entrusted to them.
We’ve also been thoughtful about the benefits of membership. Yes, there are many big-picture issues we’ll be tackling, all disseminated through our research reports. But museums need a more granular understanding of their current and potential audiences as well. We’ve designed membership to help provide that through semi-custom survey results, qualitative questions, and demographic reports (as seen in our menu of member benefits).
We’ll be honest. Becoming a member of Museums R+D takes commitment. A commitment of strategic focus and resources to truly understand how your museum can fulfill its mission to the best of its abilities. But we also believe that the museums that truly absorb our research findings into their work will find that the investment more than pays for itself with greater engagement and support from a broader public.
One last thing.
In addition to our database of nearly 150,000 museum visitors that have shared their attitudes, perceptions, and experiences with us, a couple of weeks ago we launched The Museum Panel, currently composed of 150 individuals who are sharing with us weekly commentary on their thoughts and experiences on museums. One panelist recently noted:
"We cannot physically travel back in time, around the world, or into other people's skins, but we have exhibits and experiences which hopefully transport us somewhere else and raise our expectation of ourselves and increase our knowledge of the world and our part in it."
It is time for us to understand why what we do, why our ability to transport individuals, to raise their expectations of themselves, to increase their knowledge of the world, matters.
Because it does.
We hope you will join us.
Susie and James