Museums do a lot of stuff, but for most museums, their bread and butter are the exhibitions that they display. But museums also spend a lot of time and resources to create programs and special events.
And there are a myriad of reasons to do so. Programs and special events are fun, draw attention to a museum, give some people a reason to visit for the first time, and give others a reason to return. They can also do things that exhibitions cannot always do, such as going behind the scenes or trying something that just isn’t feasible in an exhibition. Some simply ooze positive learning outcomes. We could go on and on. Programs and special events are great.
But when it comes to create deep meaning and connection for visitors, how do programs and special events compare with exhibitions? Given the prevalence of original objects in the most meaningful experiences adult museum visitors related to us in our recent research on the topic, we were curious. So we went back to the raw data to find out. (See the end of this post for our definitions and a snag we hit in coding.)
This makes sense, as this is where most of those original objects actually are.
How did staff, programs, and special events fare? Not nearly as well.
- Programs – 6%
- Staff/demonstrations – 5%
- And special events? Less than 1%.
Now we are the last people to say that a museum should not do programs or special events. Every museum should, and there are many, many important reasons to do them. They can even be transformative; one that immediately comes to mind is the Follow the North Star program at Conner Prairie.
It’s just that when it comes to the deeper experiences that visitors find most meaningful, those exhibitions that (sometimes quietly) fill our galleries seem to be having an outsized impact.
Yet museums need to engender those connections and meaningful experiences if they are going to survive, and even thrive, in an uncertain future when a plethora of other meaningful, or even superficial, experiences are competing for attention and for financial support.
What do you think? 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).
Definitions and Aforementioned Snag
We decided that programs and special events were the types of things that museums would list in calendars of events, and that programs were smaller-scale, repeatable things like lectures, classes, and story hours for children. Special events were larger-scale activities that less regularly and bring in larger numbers of people, such as a Chinese New Year celebration or a Sheep to Shawl festival. Your definitions may slightly vary, and that’s OK.
We ran into a snag regarding demonstrations and guided tours. That is, someone demonstrating weaving at an outdoor history museum might be considered part of an exhibition, but at a different museum it could be a program, or part of that Sheep to Shawl festival. (Similarly, guided tours are how you see historic house exhibits, while they are a program at art museums.) We couldn’t always tell from what respondents shared with us, so instead we created a fourth category for staff, demonstrations, and tours.
Photo credit: Erik Daniel Drost