Finally, there is some good news data for the museum industry.
Closures. Coronavirus upticks impacting attendance. Updated operations and procedures. New safety requirements. Limited capacity. Confusing mask requirements.
The global pandemic is impacting nearly every industry today. Unsurprisingly, current happenings haven’t been kind to the cultural industry. Between rising case numbers, the economic recession, and industry layoffs, you may be getting used to seemingly bad news coming in all directions.
Not this week, folks!
This week we have exciting news to share.
…And it’s the result of the hard work of the educators, curators, social media managers, animal caretakers, aquarists, horticulturists, communications pros and everyone else at museums, zoos, and aquariums who have been sharing their knowledge on behalf of their institutions during closures.
The national belief that museums are highly credible sources of information has dramatically increased since the start of the pandemic.
At IMPACTS, we are observing how perceptions and behaviors surrounding cultural organizations are changing in light of current happenings ranging from the global pandemic to the economic recession. Some of the changes are not entirely surprising. For instance, people are spending more time online. Even before the pandemic, metrics related to social media and online engagement were experiencing the fastest growth over time. (Though it seems to have certainly sped things up!)
One metric that we’ve been tracking for several years that doesn’t dramatically change is how much people consider museums to be highly credible sources of information. Those metrics are high, and they’ve remained durable over time alongside other measures of trust.
This data comes from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, which currently includes a representative sample of 151,198 US adult respondents in the United States. This chart shows how much people believe that certain entity types are highly credible sources of information. The data is shown in scalar variables ranging from 1-100. Generally speaking, values over 64 tend to indicate a level of agreement, and values below 62 tend to suggest some measure of proportional disagreement.
We’ve shown the data for the end-of-year 2018 so you can see historical levels. We’ve also shown the data for the first quarter of 2020 (January–March 2020). You’ll notice that there wasn’t much movement between Q4 2018 and Q1 2020. This is usual. It takes something significant to change the sentiment of an entire industry.
Now take a look at the data for the second quarter of 2020. This spans the months of April through June of this year – the timeframe most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
From a data perspective, this is a very significant change in a short period of time.
Museums were already considered highly credible sources of information prior to the recent uptick. These values are very high. It’s difficult to find anything upon which the people of the United States generally agree. Until recently, our winner for most agreed-upon statement in the US was “kittens are cute” with a scalar variable of 83. (This honor was recently displaced by the phrase “children’s museums are primarily for people with children to visit” which clocks in at a staggering, nation-uniting value of 91.)
Both visitors and non-visitors alike believe museums to be highly credible sources of information. Museums, zoos, and aquariums have been seen as more credible sources of information than the daily newspaper. And that credibility is even higher now.
The credibility of museums as trusted sources of information matters, because it contributes to their reputation – a driver of attendance – and their roles as leaders in our local, national, and global communities.
Indeed, some museum professionals and audience subsets may have valid criticisms about trust-related topics surrounding any number of issues. However, this overall uptick in the national perception of museums as highly credible sources of information is positive and significant, and has heretofore been difficult to achieve! Trust (“I trust the…”) is a much broader metric encompassing items related to the onsite experience, welcoming perceptions, etc. This metric remained high and stable between Q1 and Q2 of 2020.
Why has the credibility of museums as information sources increased so dramatically?
The change in the credibility of museums as sources of information during the time of the pandemic – and particularly during closures and shelter-in-place orders – is striking and new. While there may be others as well, our research suggests there are three factors most likely driving this change:
1) At this critical juncture, the federal government is failing the nation in terms of being a credible source of information.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the federal government. This metric provides important context to how and why museums have been able to elevate credibility perceptions – perhaps without even realizing it.
Trust in the federal government plummeted between April and June 2020. Remember that some measure of disagreement with the statement is generally indicated at values below 62 in this data – and the value as it relates to the federal government currently stands at 43.7. This represents active and strengthened disagreement with the statement. It’s also worth reminding readers that this is representative, national data. It is not only data from individuals affiliating with one political party or another. Overall, the belief that the federal government is a highly credible source of information is very low in the United States.
What does this downturn in credibility perceptions surrounding the federal government have to do with the museum bump? It means people in the US likely were (and are) trying to figure out who and what to trust.
2) Many museums aimed to provide connective digital content during closures.
Enter: Museums, zoos, and aquariums across the nation swiftly prioritizing digital content creation and maintaining relationships with the public during an uncertain time.
They posted fun facts, conducted curator talks, and took people on virtual behind-the-scenes tours. They created educational homeschooling content to aid parents during the lockdown. They told their stories online and many provided reliable social media updates.
Many closed their doors before they were mandated to do so in an effort to flatten the curve, demonstrating their care for the wellbeing of their communities.
Critically, museums “met their audiences where they are.” During the shelter-in-place orders especially, they were online. In several small ways that have resulted in a big national impact for the industry, many museums, zoos, and aquariums kept their passion front and center and sought out opportunities to educate and inspire virtually.
3) Museums demonstrated reliable expertise.
Being educational is a museum superpower. It’s embedded in many of their missions. Given this, it’s no surprise that digital content during the second quarter of 2020 often revolved around an organization’s content expertise.
Some content featured professional experts and educators who demonstrated clear knowledge in the organization or topic area. Other content featured curators, horticulturists, animal caretakers, aquarists, and archivists who turned the cameras on themselves and found engaging ways to interact with people at home.
People in the United States may have been especially seeking facts and expertise – and museums, zoos, and aquariums were there with fact-filled information on topics ranging from turtle rescues to fossil identification. From the talks to the homeschooling resources to the fun facts on social media, content put forth during the pandemic often demonstrated credible expertise on behalf of the professional and the organization.
Many museums, zoos, and aquariums share a mission to educate and inspire people. These entities have been creating content to do this – no “going out pants” required.
In terms of strengthening museums’ reputations as knowledgeable entities with credible messages, the data shows that these efforts are paying off.
What does this mean for museums, zoos, and aquariums moving forward?
Just because we’ve observed this dramatic increase in the perception that museums are highly credible sources of information today doesn’t mean that the values will necessarily stay that way tomorrow. Maintaining this perception will take ongoing work, introspection regarding museum missions and how they are carried out, and strategic communication.
The lessons learned during the pandemic are likely to stick with us long after it is over (and some are saying it may still be a while yet). The data here underscores two exciting findings:
A) The importance of engaging, educational content
Did museums evolve their role in the national community to now be accessible, education-based content creators? Maybe. This is something to watch and consider as business models change in light of the pandemic. Regardless, it’s clear – at least for now – that museums have taken up an important role for people as expert messengers and credible sources of information in their content areas. This may result in more long-term attention being paid to the role of educators and other content experts skilled in conversing with the public within cultural institutions.
B) The importance of “meeting audiences where they are.”
Digital engagement has played a growing role in motivating attendance for years, and now people are online more than ever. The role of museums both inside and outside of their walls appears to be evolving not just from the perspective of internal conversations (which have been happening for years in many cases), but from an external perspective among the public. The second quarter of 2020 may be one for the museum history books in the story of our sector’s evolution and a turning point for what constitutes “museum engagement.”
But I think all this means something even more exciting than both of the above considerations:
It demonstrates that museums continue to positively define and strengthen their sector – even as their doors are closed and they are struggling.
Perhaps this was the first big opportunity to prove to the nation that the worth of museums extends far beyond their building’s walls
And they did it just when the American people needed it most.
We publish new data and analysis every week. Don’t want to miss an update? Subscribe here to get the most recent data and analysis in your inbox.