In our last two posts, we shared a research query we had received about the value of changing exhibitions to a museum, and how we went about plumbing the depths of our databases to see what we could find, and then examined how different audience segments, as well as how those who specifically said “their” museum had “good exhibits,” responded.
In this post, we’ll examine the data from two other perspectives, asking ourselves:
- How do respondents who wrote in that they specifically wanted more changing or temporary exhibitions compare against the overall samples?
- Are there any differences in responses by museum type?
Bringing in the written-in comments: those who want more change
Although we didn’t ask specifically about changing exhibitions in any of the surveys we are examining, some people told us their preference anyway by writing in a comment about it. Since the vast majority of these comments came on the question where we asked how “their” museum was falling short (they marked “other” and wrote in a comment), we coded the written-in comments for this question only, separating out the individuals who specifically asked for more changing exhibitions within “their” museum.
Overall, 10% of written-in comments to the question about how “their” museum falls short said they specifically wanted more temporary or changing exhibitions, nearly 1,300 respondents, more than enough to examine more closely.
When we looked at who wrote in these types of comments, we did find that they were much more likely to be parents of minor children, and much less likely to be adults without minor children (though they might have minor grandchildren). Additionally, these respondents generally visited more often, but only one of these surveys included membership data, which indicated that they were also more likely to be a member. At first this was a surprising profile, but upon further consideration made a lot of sense. Since parents of younger children tend to be the highest volume of repeat visitors, and thus are more likely to be members, they are in and out of the museum a lot more than other audience segments. That familiarity with the exhibitions likely translates to a greater demand for change, as they seek out anything that is novel or new. Indeed, a handful comments reflected this one:
“Need a bigger variety of exhibits. They don't change much, and can cause a ‘I'm bored, already done this’ feeling for young children.”
Overall, respondents who specifically asked for more changing exhibitions were generally more negative than the overall sample. Looking across several metrics, such as whether “their” museum had good events, programs, facility, was engaging to children or adults, brought the community together, or that the staff cares, we generally see lower marks, between 1 and 8 percentage points lower. At times these differences are significant, and others they are within the margin of error, but we can say with confidence that they are generally more negative, but not hugely so, even on the metric of “good exhibits.”
Except. There was one metric where their opinion of “their” museum plummeted: if the museum met their needs. Overall, when we asked the entire sample how “their” museum was falling short on meeting their needs, 42% of respondents said “no, they meet our needs extremely well.” Among those who wrote in a desire for more changing exhibitions, only 2% said their needs were met. Two percent. In other words, the overall sample was twenty-one times more likely to say their needs were met than those who wanted more changing exhibitions. This, combined with a slightly greater sense of negativity, indicates that there is an overall sense of dissatisfaction with the perceived stasis of museums.
If the difference across all of the customer service metrics we examined was consistent with that of “needs met,” we might be tempted to view these individuals as just grumps who complain about everything. The fact that there was a difference indicates a much more complicated picture. They are not just the people who complain about everything, but instead visitors who value some specific things, but still appear to be overall dissatisfied with “their” museum. Ultimately, more research is needed in this area.
Variations by museum genre
Finally, we wanted to examine if there were differences among visitors to different types of museums. That is, was there more demand for changing exhibitions at some types of museums than at others?
The answer is a resounding yes. The written-in comments from respondents from science centers were 60% more likely to specifically want more changing exhibitions than the overall sample – 16% of written-in comments vs. 10% overall (keep in mind these percentages come from coding of written-in comments, and are high enough to be taken quite seriously). Children’s museums respondents were also slightly more likely to want more changing exhibitions. Demand for change was lowest among history-based organizations, 6%, but much of this can be attributed to low demand at outdoor history museums, whose high staffing levels with costumed interpreters lend a sense of change naturally to these sites; only 2% of written-in comments from outdoor history museums asked for more exhibition change, while more traditional history museums were closer to the 10% topline average. Art museums matched the overall sample at 10%.
This examination of exhibitions, and changing exhibitions, while it does not specifically delve into their value to a museum, does shed some light on how important they are to visitors. A sense of change does seem to correlate with happier visitors, while those who want more change are less satisfied, overall, with “their” museum.
These findings inform us the most when we examine the data by museum genre, as they do imply that science centers need to be the most proactive in creating a sense of change in their museums, as parents seek out new and novel activities for their active children. In contrast, changing exhibitions at outdoor history museums do not seem to be of great importance. But children’s museums, art museums, and more traditional history museums should still take heed of the demand for changing exhibitions, as 10% of written-in comments is still considered a significant number in qualitative research on this scale. Museums of any type that are specifically seeking to attract family audiences should also bear in mind how important change is to parents.
Changing exhibitions does not necessarily mean huge costs, though costs are certainly a factor. Of the written-in comments we examined asking for more changing exhibitions, none referred to what we call “blockbuster” exhibitions. Some suggested small changes to liven things up. Change might be a “science in the news” area, which changes on a weekly basis but would not necessarily meet design standards for a longer-lasting exhibition. Change can be delving into the permanent collection and highlighting an artist, or a local history topic, and featuring those items through a new lens (a tactic deployed by many museums during these rough economic times). Change doesn’t mean an expensive line item, and it doesn’t mean changing over the entire museum every six weeks, though it does mean a commitment of some funds and considerable time.
The benefits of changing exhibitions do, in this initial research, appear to be worthwhile, but further research on the specific topic is necessary to make direct ties to how much changing exhibitions bring in new visitors, less frequent visitors, or affect overall visitation and membership rates.
But changing exhibitions do seem to make visitors happier, and happy visitors are more likely to visit more often, join, and tell others. Don’t we all want happy visitors like that?
What do you think? Do you think changing exhibitions make happier visitors? Improve visitation? Provide a good bang for your museum’s budget? Or are they a drain on time and resources for little return? We would love your thoughts. Simply click on “comments” below to share your thoughts (and if you are reading this from your e-mail subscription, go to our blog to comment).