Take a moment and think back to a museum experience you had that you found deeply satisfying, engaging, or intellectually stimulating. Do you remember how you felt during that experience? What did you see or do that made that experience so meaningful? Does that museum have a special spot in your heart?
In all likelihood, the experience you are remembering exemplifies what museums do best when they truly, deeply, engage their visitors, and it likely illustrates how a museum best fulfills its mission.
We are obsessed with trying to figure out what it is about those museum experiences that have created meaningful experiences for visitors, and figuring it out is absolutely crucial to museums if they are going to survive, and thrive, in an uncertain future when a plethora of other meaningful, or even superficial, experiences are competing for attention and for financial support.
Or, to put it another way, strategically thinking about how to make museum visits the most meaningful for all visitors can put a museum on the path of being relevant, valued, and successful at what it does while also proving the case for support for philanthropic dollars. Why? Because we find that adults who have had particularly meaningful experiences appear to visit more often, tell others to visit, are more curious and engaged citizens, are more philanthropic towards museums, and think that museums are vital assets in their communities. Those are some pretty big reasons.
Over the next several posts, we will be looking specifically at adult engagement in museums. Last winter, in our study of children’s museum visitors, we asked respondents to tell us about their most satisfying, engaging, or stimulating museum experience. We carefully worded the question this way because we wanted to understand what engaged them content-wise and because we did not want to capture experiences that were really about their children (please note that we do consider the social/family aspect of museum visits to be very important, but that is a different topic and study; we wanted to stay focused on the individual adult experience with museums and their content). Because parents who visit children’s museums are most likely to be parents that disregard their own interests and curiosity, our sample was going to consist of the toughest adult museum visitors out there – the ones that may not even really think of themselves as museum visitors.
We captured over 4,400 experiences, overwhelmingly from mothers of young children, but also from fathers and grandparents. While these demographic and life stage characteristics should be kept in mind, it should be noted that we have used similar versions of this question in our qualitative client work, and overall the results that we’ll be sharing over the next several posts are consistent with those who have different demographic characteristics or are in different life stages. That is, our initial results appear to indicate that the most meaningful museum experiences are rather universal in nature, though there are some nuances that add a lot of complexity to our analysis.
We’ll be sharing the sometimes surprising and totally fascinating initial findings this fall, seeking out patterns in what adults find most meaningful and engaging about museums. Additionally, we’ll be examining how these patterns, and actual behaviors in museums, sometimes indicate unexpressed desires that simply are not mentioned when we explicitly ask visitors why they visit museums. We don’t claim to have any magic bullets for creating a meaningful and engaging museum experience for all visitors, but we do feel we are making a crucial start on helping museums plan a more meaningful future for themselves and their visitors.
One final note. We have not forgotten about children and what makes an experience particularly meaningful and memorable to them. We’ll address that topic in future posts as well!
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