It’s about time for more good news for museums, zoos, and aquariums.
Cultural executives may now be growing accustomed to not-so-great news surrounding their institutions. Despite conserving funds and working to re-engage audiences during the pandemic, cultural organizations are not predicted to fully achieve 2019 attendance until 2023.
But in June, we shared that museums, zoos, and aquariums increased in their perceived credibility as sources of information during the second quarter of 2020. Interestingly, this is the quarter of 2020 running from April through June during which most cultural organizations in the United States were closed! Indeed, they had increased in perceived credibility during a time in which most people were only able to engage with them online.
This good news was 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 the pandemic.
And it still is.
The national belief that museums are highly credible sources of information notably increased during the second quarter of 2020 – and stayed that way through the third.
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, as we explained in June, 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.
One metric that remained relatively unchanged in the ten years prior to the pandemic 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 153,117 adult respondents in the United States. The chart below shows how much people believe certain entity types are highly credible sources of information, in scalar variables ranging from 1-100. Generally speaking, values over 64 tend to indicate agreement, and values below 62 tend to suggest proportional disagreement.
With past levels hovering around the upper 70s, museums were already considered highly credible sources of information prior to 2020. It’s difficult to find anything upon which the people of the United States generally agree, and scalar variables this high are very rare.
The orange column shows end-of-year 2018 so you can see historical levels, and the blue column shows 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.
And then we saw this comparatively dramatic increase in the second quarter of 2020…
When we reported the dramatic uptick in credibility during the second quarter of 2020 (April–June 2020), the big question was if this increase was going to last. The second quarter represented the timeframe most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders. But many museums, zoos, and aquariums throughout the United States reopened by or within the third quarter of 2020 (July–September).
Would museums let up on the extra effort they’d been making to engage people through digital platforms during closures and try to focus again on business as usual without embedding change to meet the needs of audiences looking to these institutions for expert content?
Well, if they did just go back to business as usual, we didn’t see it in the data. Credibility perceptions for museums remained stable or slightly increased in the third quarter.
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.
Have other important metrics increased, you may be wondering? We’re glad you asked.
People believe museums should recommend behaviors to support their causes and missions.
Remember: Agreement with the sentiment starts at a value above 64. Prior to the pandemic, these numbers were already high, and – as you can see comparing the orange and blue bars (EOY 2018 vs. 1Q 2020) – they are durable throughout the years. These numbers don’t change much and an increase in only one value is significant. Though the differences look small to those unaccustomed, that’s why the increases since the pandemic started to matter to this data nerd (and the data nerds editing this article as well).
The values moved slightly in the second quarter, but the bigger increase took place during the third quarter as Americans may have begun adjusting to living life alongside the virus and making sense of a different reality.
Why did the perceived credibility of museums as information sources increase?
The dramatic increase in the already-high credibility of museums as sources of information during the time of the pandemic is striking. These findings measure perceived credibility of entity types surrounding their areas of expertise, and not necessarily as credible sources of information about the pandemic, specifically. While there may be others, our research suggests there are three factors most likely driving these positive findings:
1) The federal government is failing the nation in terms of being a credible source of information, and credibility is thus being redistributed.
Overall, the belief that the federal government is a highly credible source of information is very low in the United States. It began plummeting during the early days of the pandemic and it hasn’t stopped. At a value of only 40, this sentiment represents active and strengthened disagreement with the statement. It’s also worth reminding readers that this is nationally representative data. It is not only data from individuals affiliating with one political party or another.
The decreased perception that the federal government is a credible source may leave a gap for other entities to fill, to the benefit not only of cultural organizations but state agencies, NGOs, and newspapers as well. People in the US likely were (and are) trying to figure out who and what to trust.
2) Many museums have increased efforts to provide connective digital content.
Enter: Museums, zoos, and aquariums across the nation swiftly prioritizing digital content creation and maintaining relationships with the public during an uncertain time of limited attendance.
During closures, museums 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 provided reliable social media updates. Hearing the call for digital learning opportunities during the pandemic, many entities are rising to the occasion to be of service. They are showing their value and relevance to their communities.
Critically, museums are “meeting their audiences where they are” and understand the benefit of continuing to do so. During the shelter-in-place orders especially, those audiences were online. In several small ways that have resulted in a big national impact for the industry, many museums, zoos, and aquariums kept – and are keeping – their passion front and center and seeking out opportunities to educate and inspire virtually.
3) Museums are demonstrating 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 and third quarters 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 features curators, horticulturists, animal caretakers, aquarists, and archivists who turn the cameras on themselves and find engaging ways to interact with people at home.
People in the United States may be especially seeking facts and expertise during this confusing time – and museums, zoos, and aquariums are here with fact-filled content on topics ranging from turtle rescues to fossil identification. Content put forth often highlights credible expertise on behalf of the professional and the organization. This may account for the increase.
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. The research here underscores two exciting findings in particular:
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” and the value of digital communication: Digital engagement has played a growing role in motivating attendance for years, and now people are online more than ever. Digital connection is a cultural organization superpower right now. The role of museums both inside and outside of their walls is evolving not just from the perspective of internal conversations, but from an external perspective among the public.
As much as we complain about 2020 (and for good reason, gosh darn it!), it is likely to be one for the museum history books in the story of our sector’s evolution and a turning point for what constitutes “museum engagement.” We have a lot of exciting data coming in across the United States that highlights key trends and changes – and many of them are for the better! We look forward to sharing some of them on this platform as usual.
This year may represent the first big opportunity for museums to prove to the nation that their relevance extends far beyond their building’s walls…
And they are doing it just when the American people needed it most.
We publish new data and analysis every other week. Don’t want to miss an update? Subscribe here to get the most recent data and analysis in your inbox.