Does having an admission basis influence how much people trust museums?
Museums are trusted. In fact, museums are very trusted. They are trusted even by people who don’t visit them. People believe US museums are highly credible sources of information, generally do not have a political agenda, and should recommend behaviors to the public in support of their missions.
In our last article, we explored how perceptions of how an organization is run – private for-profit, nonprofit, government-run, or university-run – correlate with visitor satisfaction levels and intentions to return. Spoiler alert: How an organization is believed to be funded makes a difference in the visitor experience.
But what about trust?
In this article, we’ll explore another angle of the funding perception conversation: Free vs. paid admission organizations. Specifically, we know that museums are trusted – but is there a difference in trust perceptions between those with an admission basis and those without?
Well, yes and no… but there is certainly a trend worth calling out.
We drove into the trusted National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study – which is now over 140,000 respondents strong – to get to the bottom of this and see if there are statistically significant differences. In this analysis, “free” organizations are those that do not charge admission to come in the door, though they may have paid programs and paid special exhibits. “Paid” admission organizations are those that have an admission basis to attend. Though they may offer periodic free days, there’s generally a ticket cost to come in the door.
Let’s dive in.
The politics of trust perceptions
The data below is in scalar variables, which measure the level of agreement with a statement on a scale of one to one hundred. The higher the number, the more likely the entity type is perceived to have a political agenda. In this chart, an index value over 62 would begin to indicate that the organization type is seen as having a political agenda, and values over 64 indicate clear agreement. In these scalar variable charts, a difference of two or more is significant and worthy of particular note.
Overall, neither free nor paid admission museums are perceived as having political agendas, but the differences between their respective scores still matter.
To understand why, consider that institutions with free admission are more likely to be perceived as being government-run. While there are individual institution exceptions, entities perceived to be government-run generally experience lower visitor satisfaction scores and lesser intentions to re-visit than those that are perceived to be for-profit or private nonprofits. One reason for this may be the declining trust levels in state and federal agencies in the United States in recent years. It stands to reason that if you don’t trust the “funder” at the outset, you may be less likely to have a positive experience or return.
Thus, the finding that free organizations are more likely believed to have political agendas makes sense and aligns with previous findings. It’s also worth noting that being perceived as government-run does not necessarily mean that there actually is a perceived political agenda associated with all those institutions – as we see in the data, it’s just slightly more likely. The extent may depend upon individual institutions.
“What the heck is going on with zoos and aquariums?” Ah, you’ve spotted an important trend for cultural organizations that may extend beyond zoos and aquariums over time – and we’ll discuss it in more depth later in this article.
Trust, credibility, and behavioral recommendation perceptions
Museums – both free admission and paid admission – are trusted entities. There’s no doubt about it. With index values in the 70s, they far clear the value of 64 indicating decisive agreement with the statement. We’re talking about a very trusted group of institutions here.
These numbers are impressive across the board. It’s difficult to get a majority of the US population to agree strongly on anything to these scalar variable levels. For context, “I love my mother” has a mean value of 76 in the United States.
Take note of those aquarium and zoo values – again, these are big differences between free and paid. Botanic gardens, too, show a meaningful gap in trust between paid and free institutions.
In terms of being regarded as highly credible sources of information, the biggest differences by far are again for zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens.
Just as museums are trusted and seen as credible sources of information, the US public also believes that they should recommend certain behaviors or ways for people to support their social missions.
There are statistically significant differences for art museums and history museums/historic sites, and rather dramatic differences for botanic gardens, zoos, and aquariums.
“But there isn’t a big difference in free and paid botanic gardens having political agendas, though there’s a meaningful difference in how free and paid botanic gardens are trusted. What’s up?” That’s correct. There is not a statistically significant difference in free and paid botanical gardens having political agendas. But being free – which correlates with perceptions of being government-run – does meaningfully impact perceptions for botanic gardens. They just aren’t seen as having political agendas. In fact, of all the entities on the first chart, their numbers are the lowest. We find that cleanliness scores particularly matter for the overall satisfaction of botanic gardens. Botanic gardens are often considered places to experience beauty – and that beauty requires constant upkeep. People may assume that free botanic gardens are underfunded or perhaps of lower quality, carrying over to perceptions of trust and credibility for free vs. paid admission botanic gardens.
What’s going on with zoos and aquariums – and why it matters for museums.
Why are we seeing such a difference between paid and free admission entities for zoos and aquariums? This doesn’t surprise us at IMPACTS at all. Zoos and aquariums tend to be canaries in the coalmine for trends impacting the visitor-serving sector at large. We reliably see critical audience trends hit zoos and aquariums first – sometimes half a decade before they meaningfully impact other kinds of institutions.
The U.S. zoo and aquarium business model is most motivated by market demand and not overly dependent on grants, endowments, or government funding. Aquariums, specifically, tend to rely least on contributed and dividend revenues when compared to other types of visitor-serving organizations. They have the smallest endowment backstop and the least government support overall, and are generally most reliant on gate revenue. In other words, they feel it almost immediately when they have programs, experiences, and messaging that people don’t like. And because the overall aquarium business model is most motivated by market demand compared to other visitor-serving types, we are able to more easily spot how and where market demand is changing… and that helps our work with other kinds of institutions – like art museums – as well.
The three findings to follow could be an entire whitepaper on their own, but for the sake of providing additional analysis regarding the differences we’re seeing in free vs. paid admission organizations, I’ll try my hand at a brief overview. (Please be sure to subscribe to this website for deeper dives and additional data on these trends in the future):
A) Social good does not necessarily “belong” to a sector
Paid admission zoos and aquariums are generally far more trusted than free zoos and aquariums, and zoos and aquariums that highlight their mission are doing best.
Corporate social responsibility is said to be required for the success of companies today. And, well, successful corporations are generally self-sustaining and known to have more money on the whole than perceptually cash-strapped nonprofits. Having a social mission doesn’t necessarily mean that people think you’re good at it, or that the mission is worthwhile. We have to show that it is. Free organizations may have to do more to show that they are able to successfully carry out this mission, despite being free.
B) Pricing psychology may play a role
Facts that make some people uncomfortable: Paid admission organizations have higher satisfaction scores and greater intent to visit among people. In fact, the steeper the discount, the less satisfied people are with their visit. People value what they pay for. (And while we are at it, free admission does not significantly impact who visits, either.)
Could good old-fashioned pricing psychology be influencing levels of trust as well? Maybe. However, it’s not playing a big enough role to make every differentiation statistically significant. This implies that there may be more going on here than pricing psychology alone.
C) Untangling mission and political perceptions
Notably, there’s a correlation between trust metrics and the extent to which an entity is perceived as not having a political agenda – and we see this most dramatically among zoos and aquariums. But here’s something interesting: Those zoos and aquariums that are perceived among the best at their missions and are most trusted (Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Aquarium, San Diego Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society which runs the Bronx Zoo, to name only a few) often do take a stance in support of their missions! They do things like ask people to support plastic bag bans, and aim to educate and inspire folks to combat climate change through their daily behaviors.
These items may be “political” (in a sense), though these market leaders are paid-admission organizations perceived as being not political. Huh?
Having a “political agenda” and having a “mission-based agenda” is not necessarily the same thing. In fact, these findings suggest that they can be perceived very differently.
Being seen as standing up for your mission, even if it means getting politically involved? Well, there’s evidence that this can be a good (and expected!) thing. After all, your mission is what you do stand for, isn’t it?
Being seen as standing up for a political agenda? Not always so much. Politics for politics’ sake does not appear to be an expected or rewarded stance for museums.
Museums are generally trusted, whether they offer free or paid admission. They are highly credible sources of information, and people think they should suggest ways to help fulfill a social mission. That’s awesome news.
While the statistically significant findings may not warrant extreme alarm, they may still influence how we consider perceptions surrounding our institutions. There are exciting trends and considerations embedded in this research that may inform the evolution of cultural institutions now and over time.
Cultural organizations generally have the precious trust of the people in a divided time.
Be careful not to lose it.
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