How to encourage people to visit museums more often?

Note: I created this brief research project during Arizona State University’s course “Writing and Researching” in October-November 2016. You will find my project proposal, writer’s journal and annotated bibliography here.

Introduction

Museums around the world hold some of the most valuable artifacts in existence. The museum staff is the experts in their area. But while many people see museums as places of entertainment and, some see them as boring or even unnecessary.

Yet, the art and activities the museums offer can affect both a person’s personal life and whole communities. Many creative works have gotten their start when an inspiration struck an art-loving museum visitor. A talent learned in a museum workshop might have been the beginning of a startup. A piece of creative work might have helped people come to terms with their feelings and help them reflect their thoughts.

In other words, museums can offer the world more art, create work and advocate mental health. Thus, lowering the threshold for all the people to attend the museums and art centers is a task worth pursuing. It’s a cheap way to give people the tools they might need to help themselves.

This brief report takes a look at some literature about this subject. It also explores how people feel about museums in 2016. 50 people around the globe answered the Museum Survey and told about their experiences and thoughts about museums.

At the 150th Birthday Party on the Mall event, a young visitor assisted by a museum staff member tries her hand at calligraphy. Source. (Almost everyone responding the Museum Survey told they had visited museums as a child.)

The literature review

Museum visitors and non-visitors have been explored in many ways over the years. The point of views have differed, but one thing has always been clear: the motivations of people to visit or not to visit vary and sometimes overlap. Trying out different strategies can be the best way to learn what works in a certain community. As always, the feedback from the visitors is essential to listen to.

In their article “Who Visits The Museums?” Lampi and Orth focus on the entrance fee. They surveyed the visitors of Sweden’s Museum of World Culture both before and after the introduction of an entrance fee. When the entrance was still free they asked for the visitor’s willingness to pay. Then they looked at the visitor demographics after the entrance fee was charged.

Lampi and Orth list six groups who are least likely to visit museums: men, young people, immigrants, people who live in suburbs, people with low levels of education and people with low income (2). Of these, four groups (men, immigrants, people who live in suburbs and those with lower income) are less likely to visit the museum even at a very low fee level (Lampi and Orth, 15).

Chapter 8 of the “Audience Knowledge digest” by Morris Hargreaves McIntyre Agency focuses on “Why are non-visitors staying away”. They present a general non-visitor and show that the income level affects the willingness to visit a museum: “People with a household income of over £30,000 are twice as likely to have visited as those who earn less than £17,500” (Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, 99).

Lampi and Orth looked at the visitors of one museum. So did Raymond Powell and Jithendran Kokkranikal in their “Motivations and Experiences of Museum Visitors” research. Their case study was The Imperial War Museum of United Kingdom. They group the motivations of museum visitors into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

Those visitors primarily motivated by intrinsic factors focus on the perceived usefulness of the visit and the largely personal factors such as personal meaning and interpretation, timeliness, opportunities for interaction and the degree of intellectual challenge. (Powell and Kokkranikal, n.p.),

Extrinsic motivations are external to the visitor. Common extrinsic motivations are escapism, social interaction with family and friends, learning in one form or another and seeking some relaxation in a perceived worthwhile educational environment. (Powell and Kokkranikal, n.p)

Marilyn G. Hood notes in her article “Staying away” that the nonparticipants (people who do not visit museums) value leisure activities that offer them social interaction, active participation and the feeling of being at ease in their surroundings (54). These could be said to be extrinsic factors as listed by Powell and Kokkranikal.

The other three criteria people have for leisure experience are doing something worthwhile, having an opportunity to learn and having a challenge of new experiences (Hood, 51).

​Some of these are mentioned by the interviewees of Powell and Kokkranikal, too. They interviewed 44 people who visited the Imperial War Museum. Social reasons (meeting friends, day out) proved to be significant motivators among the visitors. So were interactivity and the opportunity to engage with the collection. Interestingly, the collection itself was not the prime motivator for a significant number of respondents. (Powell and Kokkranikal, n.p.)

Hood mentions that it is important to give people opportunities to relax and have social interaction in museums. These could include things like workshops and other activities that combine learning with doing. The museums could also provide tours geared to the interests of specific groups like football players or construction workers (Hood, 56).

One responder of the Museum Survey mentioned these when asked what might interest them to visit more: “Extended evening hours, more events like wine/beer/cheese tastings or concerts or book talks or lectures to draw the community in, make connections in the community, familiarize local people with what the museum has to offer as both a physical space and an educational space. I think museums tend to be too ’ivory tower’” (Museum Survey).

When presented with a list of activities that the museum might offer, people showed the most interest in workshops, differently themed tours they could take with a guide or by themselves and lectures about different subjects from history, arts and culture. Only 10 people were not interested in any of those ideas. (Museum Survey)

Morris Hargreaves McIntyre looked at the barriers preventing people from attending museums. Lack of time, money and accessibility were the biggest reasons mentioned. However, people also mentioned things like “not interested” or they saw museums as “boring” (Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, 117). Those who took the Museum survey also mentioned things like expensive entry fees, unconventional opening hours and inaccessibility. One responder even described some museums as “pointless, boring, pretentious, waste of time”. Long traveling distance and lack of company were also mentioned.

Cultural identity also plays a role when people decide to participate in museums. These include language barriers but also the feeling that the cultural and religious identities were not presented at all or are presented in a wrong way (people perceiving them as exclusive or elitist) (Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, 106).

One answer from the Museum Survey gives several concrete ideas for things that might make them more likely to visit their local museum: “Discounts. Adults only tours or events. Free train ticket with the purchase of pass or at least discounted. Audio tour options. Female only tours. Cool exhibits. Photography allowed (of exhibits, not people). No dumb scanners where I have to put my items in a bucket.” (Museum Survey).

Other approaches

Finnish Museum Card

The Museum Card offers an entrance to over 250 museums in Finland and new museums are still becoming partners. The card is valid for one year at a time and costs 64,90 euros (as of February 2017). It allows entrance to both big and small museums, regional museum centers and local museums. The Museum Card was launched in 2015 and over 100 000 cards have already been purchased. On average, a single card is used ten times a year. (Levä, 1).

Customer satisfaction of Museum Card owners is high and the threshold to pop in the museum is lower. For museums, the card provides data regarding their visitors and the frequency of visits. In addition, for museums it is always more profitable to offer Museum Card than single admission tickets. (Levä, 2).

In 2016 Finnish museums saw more visitors than ever before when approximately 6.6 million people visited museums. Over 620 000 visitors used Museum Card. The data shows growth in purchases of single admission tickets as well. It is likely that people using the Museum Card ask their friends, who do not own the card, to accompany them. (Honkanen, n.p.)

Artsequal — Art as Public Service

Artsequal is a research initiative, examining as as public service with equality as the starting point. It is coordinated by the University of the Arts (which combines the Academy of Fine Arts, Sibelius Academy and Theatre Academy) in Helsinki, Finland. The aim is to make art accessible to anyone and everyone. The research project is multidisciplinary and lasts for six years, from 2015 to 2020. The six research groups of the project are Arts@School, Arts Education for All, Arts in Health, Socially Responsible Arts Institutions and Artists, Impacts on the Arts on Equality and Well-being, and Visions — Systems Analysis and Policy Recommendations. (Artsequal website, 2017).

The goal is to examine how art as a public service could advance equality and well-being in society. This is done by analyzing new kind of art and art educational interventions implemented at schools, in eldercare, in multicultural youth work, in prisons, and so on.The project produces new knowledge on how the art services can be developed in order to enhance citizen creativity and communal engagement. The researchers will analyse how participating arts and art-education in schools, in social and health services impact well-being. Based on the results, policy recommendations are made to support political decision-making and to consolidate new art services. (Artsequal website, 2017).

Discussion

“I love to tell people the juicy backstories behind the art. Some of my favorite visitors who show up are people who we lovingly refer to as “finance bros”. These are people who are first in their income category and they are first in intelligence, but often times the last place they wanna be is at the museum. They get dragged there on a date or something. So when they come we welcome them to the museum. We identify them. We say “Tonight we are gonna start the tour in a totally different way. We are gonna start and go to the piece that the museum paid the most cash money for.” (How I learned to stop hating and love museums by Nick Gray at TEDx Foggybottom)

In the Museum Survey, discussed previously, a few people asked for more marketing of the current exhibitions. This might mean that people do not know what is currently on the show, or they don’t follow the typical marketing channels of the museum, or they don’t know how the exhibition could be relevant to them. In other words, the lack of marketing might not be the issue per se. The problem might lie on not being seen by the right people or not being able to find a connection with the potential audience.

Marketing through the newsletter, social media sites, and the museum’s homepage is usually only seen by those already interested in what the museum has to offer. Encouraging spontaneous visits from those not originally interested in it is a tougher task. Bringing the museum more close to the everyday lives of the locals might work. For example, when the weather is hot and people are spending their summer holiday, the museum could advertise themselves as “a cool place”, playing with the words of cool as a temperature and cool as “nice”.

As shown in the research, and further verified by the answers of the Museum Study, entry fees and unconventional opening hours bothered people. Some of them felt like they did not have enough time to enjoy the exhibition to its fullest but were still asked to pay the full price. Offering occasional free entry, or cheaper “evening tickets” during the last few hours of the day, or offering a pay-what-you-can opportunity can all encourage people to visit and make the museum more accessible.

People who see museums as boring might still get interested in the activities museums could offer. Partnering up with cooks, sommeliers or baristas to teach people about wine, cheese, coffee and so on might be of interest. Both in the Museum Survey and in Hood’s article, passive activities like lectures and guided tours gathered interest. Furthermore, activities like holiday themed parties or workshops can encourage whole families or school classes to visit. Asking for volunteers to go with those who would like to explore the museum but hesitate to visit alone could also work.

​Interactivity means different things to different people. When marketing about interactive possibilities, its meaning should be clear. Interactivity can offer wonderful ways of learning and deepen the audience’s understanding. But it should be clear that people do not have to take part in anything they do not want to and to tell what the museums offer for relaxation and calming down, too.

The different attitudes towards interactivity are clear when looking at the answers to the Museum Survey. People describe museums as fun, educational and interesting places. They are hopeful and willing to learn new things. One respondent said: “I find their collections fascinating. I love learning things. The thing I enjoy most is hands-on exhibitions — I may be an adult but I love finding out how things work and models are a wonderful way to do that” (Museum survey). However, at least one responder seemed to dislike the idea of interaction: “i [sic] find museums that are just old stuff in glass cases to be deadly boring, but museums trying hard to be down wit da kidz with zany interactive stuff etc, to be even worse” (Museum Survey).

This research is very limited. It uses few sources, and all sources vary in length, depth, and credibility. The majority of the respondents of the Museum Study were white females, those who earned less than $25,000 a year and were in the age group of 18–30 years. No one was over 60 years old and only 2 people were in the age group of 45–60 years old.

That being said, this research is not completely without its merits. Those 50 people answering the survey thought about their local museums more during and after the survey and perhaps were encouraged enough to plan their next visit. 98 % of the respondents said that they had visited museums as a child, with their school and/or their parents. How visiting a museum as a child affects the person’s attitudes towards them later in life would is a subject worth of further research and the Artsequal research project might offer some answers to that question. In addition, approaches like the Museum Card, that make visiting museums easier, cheaper and — seemingly — popular, are a welcomed addition to the field. All solutions that lower the threshold of visiting museums are welcomed and worth a try.

In Conclusion

As this paper has shown, people have different and often overlapping motivations and reasons to visit or not to visit museums. While this might be frustrating, it also shows that even small changes can affect a person’s willingness to visit a museum. Even a thing like having enough road signs to guide people to the museum can make a difference.

Physical accessibility is still often overlooked. While the front door of the museum might have a ramp for a wheelchair, it doesn’t mean the inside of the museum is accessible for people. It is important to take into account people who have visual or hearing impairments, too. Audio tours provide a good source of extra information. But that same information should be available in transcription, too.

Museums are often seen as places of history. While this is true, history should also help us understand the time we live right now. A museum can be the place to offer context and different viewpoints to the subjects currently on the news. Immigration and different cultures are all over the news. Subjects like Brexit and the presidential election in the US dominated the news in 2016. Despite these subjects being widely talked about, or because of it, people are confused and do not know what to think. Museums could be the place to help people get information about these things from the past to form their own opinions.

Not everything has to be about the world news, though. Many people are unaware and interested in the history of their own hometown. A local museum can be a perfect place to offer information about the town. The museum staff can also add their own personality to the mix, perhaps by telling their own “little-known fact” about the town. Or the museum building itself can offer some interesting tales to tell. These approaches can also be used in marketing.

Without visitors, there are no museums. Without museums, the world would be lacking. This was the last question of the Museum Survey. These numbers show that people do see museums as an important part of their community — even if they don’t visit them themselves.

Works Cited

Artsequal. The Arts as Public Service: Strategic Steps towards Equality. Web. 26th February 2017. Source.

Honkanen, Seppo. “Museokortilla jättisuosio: jo 110 000 omistajaa, museoissa 2016 kaikkien aikojen kävijäennätys”. February 2017. Web. 26th February 2017. Source.

Hood, Marilyn G.: “Staying away: Why people choose not to visit museums.” Museum News vol. 61 (4): pp. 50–57. 1983. Source (PDF)

Lampi, Elina and Orth, Matilda. “Who Visits the Museums? A Comparison Between Stated Preferences and Observed Effects of Entrance Fees.” Kyklos, Vol. 62, №1, pp. 85–102, February 2009. Source (PDF)

Levä, Kimmo. “The Finnish Museum Card is a success story”. Web. 26th of February 2017. Source (PDF)

Morris Hargreaves McIntyre agency. “Audience knowledge digest. Why people visit museums and galleries, and what can be done to attract them.” March 2007. Web. 4th November 2016. Source (PDF).

“Museum Survey.” Survey. 18th Nov. 2016. Respondents were gathered from Reddit’s community called r/Samplesize, where the survey was published on 7th, 8th and 18th November, 2016. N=50.

Powell, Raymond and Kokkranikal, Jithendran. “Motivations and Experiences of Museum Visitors: The Case of the Imperial War Museum, United Kingdom.” CORE, 2015. Web. 3rd November 2016. Source (PDF)