Note - this article is identical to the one just sent out via our e-newsletter, which we archive via our blog. For those who subscribe to both the blog and the e-news, we apologize for the duplication!
Over the past couple of years we have talked quite a bit about Museum Advocates - those curious individuals who love going to museums in their leisure time - but where do Museum Advocates come from? And do they have childhood experiences that are similar?
To find out, we started digging into the patterns and backgrounds of more than 30,000 core visitors to museums to see what separated Museum Advocates from core visitors. As we started wondering about some of the clues buried in the data, last summer, we asked 110 Museum Advocates in their 20s and 30s to tell us about their earliest childhood museum memories, and then coded those memories to look for patterns. Additionally, this spring we gathered 501 early museum memories of museum professionals (one from a study of science museum employees, the other from a survey of New England Museum Association members). While museum professionals are different than the general public, what we found generally reinforced the findings from our Museum Advocates outside the museum field.
Before we dig into what we found, a quick caveat: this is just the tip of the iceberg. Thus far we have examined some early museum memories, and their patterns, among Museum Advocates, but there is far more research to do, such as comparing these memories with those of Core Visitors (those who visit museums often, but tend not to define themselves as curious or to be particularly engaged with museums) and other segments of the general public. We will be doing much more research to continue to test our hypothesis and the results we have found thus far (and any feedback you have on our findings will be helpful!).
For all 611 respondents, the mean, median, and mode of earliest museum memories is age seven. Seven (give or take a year) appears to be a particularly "sticky" time when memories are being made and retained, and museums have the power to create those memories.
For about 2/3 of respondents, memories include one or both parents. Although some individuals specifically mentioned their mom or dad, generally respondents referred to parents or family, implying both parents. Given that our research indicates that only about a third of moms visit museums with their spouses, this also implies that dad may be rather important to raising new generations of Museum Advocates. We'll test this theory out in future research, when we will ask more specifically about the roles of both moms and dads.
For about ¼ of respondents, however, earliest memories were of school field trips, with no mention of any parent. We were heartened to see this as we were initially afraid we would see a pattern that Museum Advocacy was almost exclusively handed down from parent to child. Instead, there is a clear path for youngsters to become engaged with museums regardless of the engagement of their parents . . . through school field trips. School field trips appear to be incredibly important not only to learning and visitation in the short-term, but also for the long-term sustainability of museums and to create a strong pipeline of museum professionals. So we are increasingly troubled not only by the cuts in field trips by school districts, but also in the number of museums that are discontinuing field trip programming.
What They See Is Important
And when it comes to those early memories, what they see may actually be more important than what they do. About a third of early memories came from natural history museums alone, a disproportionate number, indicating that natural history museums may have a disproportionate impact on the creation of young Museum Advocates. Additionally, art museums and history-based showed up at high rates. Why these types of museums? Memories tended to be of large-scale, static exhibits that promote internal activity and imagination. Dioramas, dollhouses, suits of armor, dinosaurs, period rooms. Objects and exhibits that tend to be highly narrative appeared time and time again. One of our favorite memories clearly illustrates how a static object can spark internal cognitive activity: "[I was] maybe 4 years old and running around under the huge whale . . . . I pretended I was swimming with him - and we were friends."
Other museum types do not appear in as many memories. At first we thought age might be the issue, in that older Museum Advocates were young children before large numbers of children's museums and science centers, in particular, were around. But when we control for age and only look at respondents in their 20s and 30s, still these types of museums do not show up at nearly the rate of other types. The only exception? Overall, current employees (of all ages) of science centers were more likely to remember visits to science centers.
The low incidence of children's museums is relatively easy to explain. Many families stop going to children's museums when they feel their oldest child has started to grow out of it, typically around age five or six . . . and before that magic age of seven. So a smaller incidence makes sense. The low incidence of science centers is a puzzle, however, though a few more details may shed some light on this, and give us paths of inquiry for future research.
First, the memories from these types of museums are less detailed from natural history, history, and art museums. Memories tend to be less vivid, more concise. A typical one might be "went to the science center with my class." Quite a difference. At this time, we are postulating that the different narrative quality of the exhibits may be key to this difference, though we will certainly test this theory, among others.
The second thing we noticed is that, overall, hands-on experiences were in very short supply in the collected memories, even, again, when we controlled for age and only looked at younger adults. Overall, fewer than five percent of memories included a hands-on activity. And, of course, children's museums and science centers are highly hands-on.
Does this mean hands-on activities are not as important as traditional, static, artifact-based exhibits? Not at all. Hands-on activities have been shown to be a tremendously valuable learning format. Just, for whatever reason, they are not as memorable. We would suggest that museums continue to offer both types of experiences as they provide different, but equally important, learning opportunities. Besides, parents of young children view hands-on activities as absolutely essential for a visit. No question. They expect them.
These results are, as mentioned earlier, only preliminary, and just scratch the surface of what we think is a very rich vein of future research. We would love to hear your thoughts as we create the research plan for delving deeper. (And if you want to share your early museum memories, we would love to hear them too!). To share your thoughts and questions, click on “comments” below (and if you are reading this from your e-mail subscription, go to our blog to comment.