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August 07, 2009


Paul O.

Hands-on activities are "not as memorable"?

I might suggest that your methods of data collection might not be as conducive to gathering the types of remembrances that come from physical experiences.

Put another way, many art and history museums might be thought of as "memory factories" while many science centers and children's museums might be thought of as "experience generators."

Jennifer H

You know, the comments about remembering "seeing things" don't surprise me in a way. A few years back, a history museum where I worked started dabbling our toes in evaluating school programs with children (as opposed to teachers) by asking a couple of simple questions about "What did you learn?" and "What was your favorite?" at the end of the program. The children rotated through an immersive hands-on space, a gallery space with hands-on activities, a classroom with hands-on activities, and a traditional period room space interpreted with a questioning strategy, with the group behind barriers. The period room had been included mainly because we needed a space for part of the group to be in to make the program work structurally, and we were shocked to find that it was coming up in the survey responses a LOT (2nd-4th graders). It didn't seem to matter what order they'd visited the spaces in, either, so it wasn't a matter of just saying the last thing they'd done to please the teacher. Unfortunately, staffing and structural changes meant we never continued the research but I've always been curious what we might have learned. Very interested to hear what further Reach research shows!

Tom Reitz

I'll echo your research findings ... I have distinct memories of visiting the armour court at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto as a kid, probably about aged seven.

I wonder if childrens' memories of visiting living history sites might be different than visiting more traditional exhibit-based museums, particularly as it relates to their memory of hands-on activities. For example, if seven year olds are given the opportunity to assist the blacksmith at the forge, is that a strong memory?

Vicki Donkersley

I have a vivid childhood memory of visiting a museum almost 45 years ago. I lived in a small town in West Texas and the only museum was a local arts center that exhibited work by regional artists. I believe I was probably in 4th grade when our class took a field trip to visit the museum. What I vividly remember was an artist using a torch to transform canes of glass into lacy animals and people. I was mesmerized. I had never seen anything like it and had never before considered how something so delicate was made. It was a magical experience.

There were no science, history or natural history museums in my hometown and the field trip was my only visit to the art museum that I recall. I didn't visit another museum until I attended college and choose to major in art.

Our school system allowed each grade level to take one field trip per year and I can recall 4 of the 6 places we visited during the elementary school years - including a train trip to a nearby town (for the experience of riding a train), and visiting two local businesses - Mrs. Baird's Bakery, and the Dr. Pepper bottling plant. I think part of the reason the memories are still fixed in my mind is that by its very nature, the field trip was something special and different. It was talked about by the teacher in advance with much fuss about the preparation, we took the bus to a new place (I never rode a school bus other than for field trips), we were in a new and different environment, and we learned something outside the classroom and beyond the curriculum.

So I think the fact that we understood it was supposed to be a "special experience" made it so. (Still, there were obviously 2 field trips that weren't so memorable for me.)

Randi Korn

regarding the low incidence of children's museums and science centers in the museum memories you collected, have you considered the fact that there were very few of those types of museums 25 to 35 years ago?

Randi Korn

James Chung, Reach Advisors

So here's a quick string of responses so far:

- Paul, we suspect you're right about how the role of "memory factories" and "experience generators" likely has different contributions to the 'stickiness' of museum visits in terms of future impact. And yes, it's probably somewhat a function of the mode of the research design that shaped the initial findings. We actually weren't even looking at this issue until we started to notice an odd pattern in some other work that wasn't designed for this, so now we're starting to really fine tune the inquiry to dig deeper. As we continue digging, we should make sure we connect since you'll be sure to have some really good input. We're likely to convene a group of thinkers to help shape some of the subsequent waves of inquiry, so I hope you don't mind if I volunteer you for that group!

- Tom, to your point wondering about if there's a difference about hands-on experiences at living history museums, that's one of the many topics for which we really want to dig deeper. To trot out one of our favorite examples of museums pushing the limits, I would bet that Conner Prairie in Indianapolis is churning out large numbers of future Museum Advocates with incredibly gripping 'hands-on' programming, even though they aren't like the more traditional 'static' museums.

- Jennifer, thanks for sharing your findings about your prior museum's research that uncovered similar findings. If you don't mind, would you be willing to email me with the name of that museum? james @ reachadvisors.com (without the spaces). If they are willing to share, we'd love to take a look at what they found to see if it helps refine future inquiry.

- Vicky, thanks for your field trip memories about a truly magical experience. This is an issue for which we're going to keep digging. We know that some museums have invested heavily in field trips, and found no measurable impact. Yet we all hope that becoming a Museum Advocate isn't simply a function of growing up in the right household. And that's part of what's driving this line of inquiry...we really want to figure out if there are any levers that are executable by museums to increase the number of Museum Advocates over time.

- Randi, your question about whether the low incidence of children's museums and science centers 25-35 years ago shaped the findings, that's exactly one of the first questions we raised when we started to see that pattern emerge in the data. To dig deeper, we designed another wave to examine this issue among young adults in their 20s since they grew up well after the explosion of children's museums and science museums...and we found that they had similar patterns as older audiences even though the young adults grew up with children's museums and science centers.

To everyone: Thanks for the comments. This will absolutely help us shape subsequent research. We look forward to continued dialog on this topic, so keep posting comments or getting in touch directly as many of you have done. The stuff so far is just some of our preliminary findings...and we'll most certainly keep digging deeper to try to figure out what all this means for the creation of more Museum Advocates in adulthood!

B. Kaminsky

Very interesting, thank you.
You say that 2/3 mentioned a parent or parents. I was disappointed that your followup plan seemed to take a pretty narrow view of family - you seem to assume that "family" means mom and dad and kids. Please be careful not to define it for your respondents as traditional two-parent (mom and dad). Although I know it's not a study in demographics, if you leave it open ended maybe you'll collect more inter-generational and alternative family stories. (For example, "only about a third of moms visit museums with their spouses..." I'm part of the 2/3 of parents who visit museums with my children without my spouse because I don't have a spouse.)

James Chung, Reach Advisors

Yes, the follow up plan is to dig quite deep into the structure surrounding the child when they visit, not just defining it as merely a visit as part of a traditional two-parent family since roughly 1 in 3 children in America aren't in a traditional two-parent household. (Unfortunately, it's hard for us to lay out everything in a blog format given the massive amount of data and other demands that keep us from nailing everything in the blog!) And just in case it helps reassure you on this point, one of our senior consultants is also raising her son without a spouse, so she's particular keen on tracking that issue! But...thank you so much for raising the point as this kind of feedback is immensely helpful.

Lisa Falk

I'm not surprised that large objects and story-driven contexts come up high in people's early museum memories. My earliest museum memory is as a very young child (don't know age) and the large trains on the ground level of the NMAH, SI. This was before the redone exhibit. When I worked at NMAH much later in life I asked the curator if the trains ever moved. He said no. I was surprised as I would have sworn they had as a child. I think now it was the smell (engine oil), the sounds (soundtrack) and the immensity of the objects which if not stopped you could reach out and touch. I've worked in history and anthro museums and it is the stories we tell to children on fieldtrips that catch their attention (and the adults as well). Of course large objects and dioramas do too. During the first three years of school, the children are still actively imagining things. Something that ignites that imagination with images (objects!) and words gets woven into their own thoughts--ie: they can make meaning--and that is a powerful experience that can be lodged into memory and connected to a museum visit. Storytelling using objects is the way to go. It may include a hands-on exploration experience too (especially to fool around with the ideas or to apply your own take on them), but remember to include the personal stories!

James Chung, Reach Advisors

Lisa, thanks for your various contributions to the ongoing dialog on this blog. We've really been fascinated with the stuff that we've been seeing pop out of the data so far, and the different paths to dig more purposefully into this topic. As we dig deeper, we would love to add to the body of knowledge about how to weave these experiences into the own thoughts of children, how to weave different kinds of museum experiences together, and how to weave a pattern of museum going into their lives. So thanks to your comments, and the comments of others, as it's all shaping where this heads next. Please keep the thoughts flowing!

Heather Nielsen

Thanks for this thought provoking piece. I am curious about when and if grandparents will appear in memories of early museum visits. And if it behooves those of us programming for families in museums, start thinking about how we work with grandparents around sharing museums with grand kids. This may even hit another target audience--the aging baby boomer.


Your research has answered a question for me. I have always wondered why my younger siblings are less interested in museums than my older sister and I are. When I did the math I realized that my younger siblings were at the "sticky" age when we moved to an area with less museums and no longer made as many museum-centered vacations as a family. Very interesting.

The research Jennifer mentioned in her comment was done at Winterthur in Delaware. We were all very encouraged to find that children really did love the real stuff as much or more than any of the experiences we educators worked so hard to create.

Beth Twiss Houting

The study that Jennifer and Tracey refer to was published in Current Trends in Audience Research and Evaluation, May 2000 (may still be avialable through AAM). "Children as Museum Visitors" was based upon a review of a number of visitor studies done at Winterthur from 1992-2001, including the questions Jennifer mentioned of school students and a review of children's thank you letters. We were all surprised how high the period rooms rated. We had assumed kids only would be interested in hands-on." I think we did not give the kids enough credit to be able to "experince" in many different ways.


The sticky-ness of science centers in particular is very interesting. Have you given any thought to interviewing some leaders (non-museum folks) in the sciences? Professors, NASA engineers, etc. etc. It would be interesting to know why they got into (and excelled) in the field. How many were inspired by a museum as a 7 year old? Of course, if they know you are doing research for the museum field, their response to you might be skewed.

James Chung, Reach Advisors

Heather, yes, we really want to dig further into the grandparent relationship. In part because we've seen in some of our other research that the generation of young adults about to hit their peak years for having children have a much tighter relationship with parents than any prior generation. As a result, we expect to see far more grandparent engagement than ever before.

Tracey/Beth, thanks for pointing us to Winterthur for the source of that research, so I'm sure we'll track that down. We too have been rather surprised by the findings so far, so we'll keep digging.

Sara, great idea to interview non-museum leaders in the sciences. While I don't want to get too ahead of ourselves since all this is still preliminary, we've become fascinated with a correlation that we've noticed between the development of Museum Advocacy and curiosity. Of course, correlation isn't necessarily causality...but it sure would be interesting if our next waves of research get a better understanding about if/how museums serve as a catalyst for curiosity that shapes lives as adults. But good point about skewing answers if we identify that we state that we're doing that research for the museum field. Yet it's actually rather easy for us to mask that specific information since we work across sectors. Bottom line: I'd really love to add something like that into an upcoming next wave.

Thanks to everyone for contributing some great input, and sharing your insights. This is really helpful to us!

Jann Brown

This article and the subsequent comments are all very interesting. My earliest museum memories were at a children's nature museum and also at interpretive areas of NPS attractions. It occurred to me that while I remember specific displays and in some cases, activities, at each of these, my parents took photographs of me and my brothers doing stuff or looking at exhibits. Thus my memories have been reinforced for years every time we look at old photo albums. One might argue if these constitute true memories. I don't think that really matters. I still remember the experience whether it's prompted by a photo or not. It would be interesting to include a question in your research as to whether other people's memories are being reinforced in this way. In this day of relatively easy digital photography, photo sharing websites, and social media, how easy would it be for a museum to do their own reinforcement of museum memories by posting field trip photos or family tour photos to a site for a limited time with a password that only that group could access? In other words, if photos assist museum memory, is there a way to be proactive and not depend on the visitor to initiate those memories without running into privacy issues or would that just be opening up a real can of worms?

James Chung, Reach Advisors

Jann, I love the point about whether or not photos reinforce or even create seminal memories from museums. We find in our tourism industry work that the role of photos is ridiculously powerful. We even recommend to many of our tourism industry clients that they find ways to 'highlight' the best photo backdrops in order to increase the odds of photos that get kept and displayed, and that their staff be trained to stop whenever they see a couple or family taking photos and offer to take a photo so everyone is in the shot. Anyway, back to museums: We'll probe further into this issue in subsequent waves of inquiry since it's a potential lever for museums to increase the 'stickiness' of the memories.

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