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The sublime: "I was scared of the Tyrannosaurus exhibit because it looked so real I was sure it would bend down and eat me."
The (somewhat) naughty: "I remember going to the ROM and seeing an aboriginal exhibit. I specifically remember trying to look under the loincloth of a life-size figure to see if it was anatomically correct."
The mundane and the exceptional: "My grandmother used to take me to the Art Institute. I loved the blintzes we had for lunch there!! But I also remember loving the artwork and still have very strong emotional attachments to a lot of them."
And the funny: "We went to the Plimoth Plantation. I remember being confused that they didn't know what a television was."
Childhood memories of visiting museums are engaging, touching, and, at times, inspiring as we see exactly what people remember for 20, 30, even 70 or more years.
When we began planning our latest study of museum-goers, one of the major lines of inquiry concerned childhood museum experiences. We wanted to collect the early museum memories of our respondents, and see if there were any patterns that correlated with adult museum-going behaviors. Primarily, we had four questions:
1. What makes a museum experience memorable, or sticky (that is, it sticks with you)?
2. What ages are most impressionable?
3. What are the pathways to museum engagement as adults?
4. How do childhood museum experiences differ among different audience segments?
To find out in the online survey we administered, we asked a series of questions. First, we asked respondents, who were all recruited via museum e-mail lists, to think back to the earliest or strongest childhood museum memory and to tell us how old they were in that memory. Then, we asked who they were with in the memory. Finally, respondents were then asked to tell us anything else they remembered from that experience, in the form of a written response question.
Nearly all 40,000+ respondents told us their age and who they were with in their memory. And over 28,000 took time to type in details about their memory. Given that this was a pro bono project, we analyzed every 8th memory, giving us a selection of approximately 3500 memories that we rigorously analyzed by type of museum remembered, what was remembered, the quality of the memory (i.e., how detailed), whether the memory was unusually negative or positive, and other factors. We also did analysis by demographic segments, so we could control for age, gender, and other factors as needed.
Please keep in mind, however, that we continue to go back to this large cache of data to further analyze, examine, and learn more, so this post, as well as the blog posts to come, is a first look at our initial memory findings.
Overall, the mean and median age of memories shared was seven, with younger respondents generally having younger memories than older respondents (median age of six for those under 30, and rising to nine for those 70 or older). Over half of respondents remember their mother in their memory, 56%, while just under half remember their father, 44%, though men were more likely to remember their father in their memory than women. And, as we have already shared, school field trips were a critical pathway to adult museum visitation for a third of respondents, but nearly half of minority respondents and respondents whose parents had lower educational attainment.
We then coded memories to determine what types of museums figured prominently in the memories. Of course, in some memories it was unclear. There were also relatively few memories from zoos and aquariums, botanical gardens and arboretums, and nature centers, in part because the general public may not perceive them as museums; one respondent said they "did not visit museums but mostly zoos." Others questioned if a zoo or a botanical garden actually was a museum at all.
Additionally, there were relatively few memories of children's museums, we believe due to two factors: 1 - relatively few respondents over age 40 were likely to have experienced children's museums as children; and 2 - our research indicates that when the oldest child in a family hits about age six or seven, the whole family transitions out of children's museums, meaning that the oldest child may transition out before that early memory imprints, while also decreasing the odds that a younger sibling will remember it at all. Therefore, we were unsurprised by this result.
But there were many, many memories of history museums and historic sites (together 24% of memories), natural history museums (21%), and art museums (17%). Additionally, 21% of memories were of science museums/centers, though at times it was unclear if the respondent was describing a natural history museum or a science center; we defaulted to science center when we were unsure.
There were several themes that kept coming to the forefront of the memories collected, primarily:
- Collections (the actual artifacts and objects)
- Exhibitions (more the general feeling of an exhibition rather than the objects)
- Hands-on/interactive experiences
- The "Wow" factor
- The spark of inspiration/learning
- Transformative experiences
- Staff interactions
In our next post, we'll begin to explore these top themes in more detail.
What do you think? What do you remember from your childhood museum experiences? To share, simply click on "comments" below. (If you are reading this from your e-mail subscription to the blog, please go to http://reachadvisors.typepad.com to add a comment.)
Photo courtesy of Katie Clark, The Academy of Natural Sciences