As museum professionals, we all likely find great meaning in what we do, and hope that we are providing the most meaningful, memorable, and engaging experiences to our visitors. We also understand that doing so is likely going to be absolutely crucial as competition for precious leisure time, other educational options, and philanthropic dollars, becomes even fiercer. How do museums set themselves apart?
In our last post, we laid out why it is important to understand what adults find most meaningful in museum experiences, not only because that is what a museum is supposed to do, but also for future sustainability. That is, museums that don’t understand how it is they can be most meaningful may find themselves increasingly irrelevant.
To begin to crack this very complex nut, we first examined the over 4,400 adult meaningful museum experiences we gathered in our latest field-wide research, and coded them for what type of museum is being described. Some respondents said very clearly, naming the specific museum where they had had their most meaningful experience. Others were clear enough from context, mentioning paintings, historic spaces, or science experiments. And some were too vague to tell. We ended up coding all of the responses into the following museum genres:
- Art museums
- History-based museums (museums, historic sites, etc.)
- Science centers
- Natural history or anthropology museums
- Other types (zoos, botanical gardens, children’s, etc.)
- Too vague to tell
So what did we find? First off, despite our asking respondents specifically to NOT tell us about experiences that involved friends and family members, about 10% of the sample answered about their children anyway. We removed those responses from the sample, leaving us with nearly 4,000 responses to work with. (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).
The majority of the remaining responses were from art and history-based museums, each accounting for 28% of experiences shared. Given our previous research delving into early childhood museum memories, these results did not surprise us as history and art museums also turn up in a large share of childhood memories.
What did surprise us a bit was that only 19% of responses recounted experiences from science centers/museums – a respectable showing, but not as high as we had hoped given the prevalence of science centers and how science and technology impacts our daily lives in meaningful ways. Additionally, the experiences recounted about science centers tended to be more cursory and less detailed than those for art or history museums, again following a similar pattern we saw in our memory work.
Our next post will explore the four major themes we found when we analyzed these meaningful museum experiences, and these themes will shed some light onto why art and history museums did rather well in creating environments conducive to the most meaningful experiences.
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