We have data on children’s museums. The reasons why we don’t often include it may be of interest to other organizations as well.
“What about children’s museums?!”
We get this question frequently.
At IMPACTS, we track perceptions to various cultural organization types – from natural history museums to music festivals to art centers to memorial sites. But because upwards of 15 differentiated data cuts and explanations are difficult to include in every article on this site, we often combine data into broader categories based on visitor profiles.
You may have noticed we rarely cut the data for children’s museums. The reason isn’t because we don’t have a lot of data on them…
While likely visitors to various cultural organizations generally represent a similar type of person, there are some unique differences. For instance, art museum visitors tend to have the highest household incomes amongst museum types, science museums and science center visitors are more likely to have children in the household, and festival visitation cycles are shorter than those of other organization types. These differences can aid cultural organizations in strategic engagement, marketing, and programming decisions within the broader umbrella of the “type of people who visit cultural organizations.”
But children’s museums face unique challenges. And those challenges tend to manifest themselves in the data when it’s cut the same way as research related to other organization types. As a result, when cut with the same parameters as other organization types, their outcomes require the most explanation.
Today, let’s draw back the curtain and look at why overall US perceptions are so different for children’s museums compared to other entities. If yours is an organization that heavily targets children – or you are a data lover after our own hearts – then you’ll find this information helpful as well.
Children’s museum leaders: This is going to look bad. (It’s not awesome.) But this information also helps inform exciting solutions for sustainable long-term engagement. There’s so much more to this conversation and we only scratch the surface in this article. We offer workshops to dive deeper. Take our hands for now, and let’s walk through this.
1) Children’s museums are the only entities that generally aim NOT to welcome everyone.
That sounds bad on its surface, but there’s more nuance involved for children’s museums than may immediately come to mind.
Attitude affinities measure how welcome people feel at various cultural organizations. Negative attitude affinities are when people believe an organization is “not for people like me.” It could be for any reason. Perhaps they don’t feel that the organization is welcoming people of their racial or ethic background, or their age, or their physical abilities. It’s no secret: Cultural organizations have a way to go to be perceived as welcoming to everyone.
When we ask folks how welcoming different organization types are “for people like them,” children’s museums stand out as being particularly unwelcoming.
This is because children’s museums are unwelcoming to a massive group of people who are generally engaged by the others: Adults without children.
I have a favorite fun fact that I reference often: One of the most agreed-upon statements amongst people in the US is “kittens are cute.” This statement has a sky-high scalar variable of 83. In terms of scalar variables, that is an exceptionally high level of agreement. But there’s a new scalar variable champion in town. “Children’s museums are primarily for people with children to visit” has a scalar variable of a whopping 91!
This makes sense. You may be hard pressed to find someone who insists that children’s museums are “primarily for unaccompanied adults.” If you do meet this person, run. They sound creepy.
On a related note: People generally don’t want to feel creepy.
Children’s museums face the same struggles as other organization types in terms of engaging people of more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. This isn’t as binary as “people with kids in the household feel welcome and people without children in the household do not,” so it makes cutting data for children’s museums’ potential visitors more complicated. For instance, I do not personally have children, but I do feel like children’s museums are “for people like me” because I gladly visit these organizations with my friends’ little cuties. But I would not visit them alone… because I do not want to feel like a creep.
The fact that children’s museums are viewed almost exclusively as places to visit with children skews data outcomes in several ways that make it difficult to include the findings in regular articles.
2) The children’s museum audience is shrinking at a faster rate than most other organization types.
Whether it’s science centers, aquariums, or theaters, a smaller percentage of people are attending cultural organizations with children under 18. The percentage of people in the US attending cultural organizations with children has declined 12.5% in the 12-year duration spanning years 2006 – 2017.
This makes sense given the changing demographics, psychographics, and behavioral characteristics of people in the United States. Today, there are 1.7x more US households without children than there are US households with children. The percentage of US households with children has declined from 50.9% with children in 1970 to 36.2% with children in 2017, and the average household size in the US has declined from 3.24 people per household to 2.58 people. Here’s the data.
Millennials are having children at a later age than their parents did, and they are having fewer of them. The US birth rate is at an all-time low. In other words, there are fewer households with children, and fewer children in those households.
The fact that the percentage of people visiting cultural organizations with children has decreased helps contextualize even basic data findings, such as interest in visiting children’s museums.
This chart indicates strong disinterest in visiting children’s museums within the US composite market. Don’t let the data fool you! This doesn’t necessarily mean that children’s museums aren’t effectively cultivating interest amongst folks with children. It means that they aren’t cultivating interest amongst the US composite market at the same levels as other types of organizations.
3) Children’s museums aim to engage children, but adults are visitation decision-makers who assess the experience.
Largely unlike a majority of other cultural organization types, adults visiting children’s museums are engaged mostly by proxy. Sure, the experience is often designed to engage adults in the creation of meaningful moments with their little ones (and holy cow, is this important), but adults considering their experiences at children’s museums may filter them through the lens of their children’s perceptions and experiences.
And, to be blunt, the experience is not specifically designed for adults. Interestingly, we often find that this experiential mismatch manifests itself in several otherwise unexpected ways. Consider the chart below on the basic measurement of how satisfied people are with their visits to different organization types.
What’s going on with children’s museums?! Are they generally boring? Not doing a good job?
Adults may simply be less able to assess the impact of content – and specific forms of play – for their children. After all, to an adult, a miniature grocery store may not be all that exciting. For a child, though, pressing the buttons on a model cash register may feel like the most fun they’ve ever had. Unfortunately for children’s museums, it’s the adult who reports visitor satisfaction scores.
It may be for this reason that children’s museums are generally seen as the least entertaining type of exhibit-based cultural organization – including memorial sites.
While a child may be the reason for a visit to a children’s museum, an adult makes the visitation decision and assesses the experience. This manifests itself in data related to children’s museums when compared to other organization types.
Unwelcoming, Uninteresting, and Unengaging?
Not necessarily to their target audiences! The factors above contribute to overall US perceptions of children’s museums, making them a frequent outlier in comparisons amongst organization types. Without context, the charts above make children’s museums look as if their target audiences don’t feel welcome and don’t want to visit. When we include children’s museums alongside other entities, the difference is stark, and to explain these differences would require a great deal of analysis. (Case in point: We’re 1,356 words in, folks.)
If you’re a children’s museum leader, look at the metrics for science centers and science museums in the data that we share on this website. (We’ll parse out children’s museums when it makes sense, too! And one of the best places for deeper dives on specific challenges for any organization type – with a focus on specific regions, to boot – is during a facilitated workshop.)
In terms of visitor profiles, visitors to children’s museums are extremely similar to visitors to science centers. A key difference is having a child in the household, and the age of the child. Basically, the kind of people who visit children’s museums are likely to visit science centers… but the people who visit science centers are not necessarily visitors to children’s museums. A big reason why – as we’ve covered – is that science centers are viewed as places that also welcome and aim to engage adults. The difficulty is the children’s museum business model, which is different than the model for other organization types in terms of who they welcome and how they are perceived.
Certainly, children’s museums are facing unique challenges – but they may have some interesting opportunities as well. We’re seeing children’s museums utilize opportunities to “go deep” with membership to maximize the limited time with which folks engage with these organizations (kids grow up), create partnerships with other cultural organizations to underscore the academic advantage they provide, and even integrate school programs to aid in securing support.
The reasons driving the perceptual differences between children’s museums and other organizations can be helpful for other entities to consider, too. They show how business models impact overall perceptions and encourage us to dive deeper into the stories behind even basic metrics – such as interest, entertainment, and satisfaction. We have more (helpful) data at our fingertips than ever before, and we’re glad to help organizations use it.
Children’s museum or not, it’s an exciting and challenging time to be a leading a cultural organization.
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