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The Mall Over the Museum

Category: Audience Research and Evaluation

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


“We’ve outgrown museums,” the girl said.

Behind her, heads nodded in agreement. Were these 13-year-olds trying to say that museums were only for little kids?

And did that mean that museums were, well, lame?

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Uhm … yes. But they said parents are lame, too, as are school, history, science and just plain learning. And so no surprise: museums are lame (and really boring).

Except when they are not.

Children between the ages of 11 and 14 are fascinating, maddening, uncensored, thoughtful, challenging, engaging, tech-savvy, social and fun. They may say that museums are dull, but do they really, deep-down, believe that? Are there opportunities to attract tweens and teens to museums?

For the Smithsonian Institution, and particularly the National Museum of American History, we set out to learn more about this small but important audience segment for museums. Because frankly, if you can make a museum interesting to the most jaundiced eighth-grader, it is probably interesting to anyone!

Just over 12 million strong, middle-school students might not be the largest audience segment, but they are an important audience segment for some museums. It is a tricky age. They are still very dependent on their parents but they desperately seek independence. They are figuring out who they are and what they want to be. And they are, despite their claims to the contrary, highly impressionable.

The Smithsonian Institution has good reason to want to know more about this audience. In the spring, thousands of middle-school students arrive each day at the Smithsonian on field trips organized to introduce students to Washington, D.C. These trips usually include a few hours at various Smithsonian museums, and teams of children are allowed to visit the museums with their friends. It is a tremendous opportunity for the Smithsonian to help develop museum-going habits among this segment. Fortunately they allowed us to share a bit of the research we conducted for them.

To find out what middle-school students thought about the Smithsonian, and museums in general, we had to ask. We wanted to dig deeper into this group by also learning about their lives, what they like and dislike and whom they admire. We wanted a demographic mix of students that represented different socio-economic levels, different races and ethnicities and different geographic areas. Five middle schools from coastal Maine to rural Georgia partnered with us on this project, representing a variety of attributes including suburban, urban and rural, public and private school, and experience with Smithsonian visits.

Although we administered a written survey at each school, we knew that this alone would not give us the depth of information we needed. We had to actually talk to the kids in person, so we worked with a class at each school. To facilitate the conversations and to provide even more information, we gave them an art activity as well.

Entering each classroom with about 50 magazines, ranging from teen and tween girl magazines (such as Seventeen) to specific-interest magazines (such as a title on skateboarding), and armed with glue sticks, scissors, magic markers and construction paper, we asked the students to create a collage or drawing that they felt represented their lives. To get them started, we posted some leading questions on the blackboard, including:

What do you do on the weekend?

What do you do after school?

What are your favorite things?

What things do you wish you had?

What are your favorite TV shows, stars, movies, music?

What are your hobbies?

What do you wish you could do?

What do you do for fun?

Students were encouraged to cut up the magazines, make lists, draw pictures, whatever they wanted to do to create something that they felt represented them.

The activity allowed us to roam the classroom, interact directly with students and ask lots of questions. Using the project as a launching pad, we could then dig deeper into what they thought about museums and learn how museums could be more relevant to their lives.

After the classroom immersion, we pored over surveys, collages and a mass of notes. While analyzing notes and surveys is fairly straightforward, the collage required coding for nearly 100 different possible categories of things, people and concepts to tease out the students’ preferences.

In the classroom, we asked students what came to mind when they heard the word “museum.” Sadly, the first word out of their mouths was usually “boring.” “Too much reading” came up as well. Or that museums “don’t have enough to do.” Their opinions were quite variable, influenced by “who I am with” or “what type of museum” it is. Some kids, instead of thinking of how they felt about museums, came up with more tangible answers. Dinosaurs, presidents, pictures, animals, statues all leapt to mind for a number of students. Others just said “big”’—a theme that came up a few times.

Nearly all of them prefer the mall to the museum. Oh boy.

But there was a major factor in play when we asked these questions verbally in the classroom. The immediate presence of their friends—hearing their answers or seeing their hands go up (or not)—influenced responses. Things were actually more complicated than these simple questions revealed, and the picture was not so depressing.

Turns out, middle-school kids do not hate museums. On the written survey, where responses were confidential, only one in ten said museums were “boring.” Just over half reported that they go to museums at least sometimes, and there were some encouraging written comments that went along with those answers:

“…when I hear the word museum I say I can’t wait.”

“If one of my friends says museum, I ask if I can go. I love museums.”

“Cool creations or interesting sights. Cool facts.”

Zoos and aquariums are the favorite types of museums for middle-school students, with most students enjoying them—as typically found in our surveys of adults, as well. This was followed by science museums, history museums, art museums and finally children’s museums.

Survey data also revealed signs of some museum advocates in the making. Just over a quarter of the survey respondents said they loved museums and exhibited behaviors remarkably similar to adult museum advocates. They were eight times more likely to enjoy reading than those who said museums were boring. They were also significantly more likely to enjoy history class and to cite teachers as role models in their lives.

These blossoming museum advocates also had a markedly higher incidence of participation in arts-and-crafts and remote-control activities, exhibiting a higher level of creative engagement typically found in older museum advocates. They were also more likely to enjoy building and fixing stuff and playing video games—a trend that may be initially surprising to adults unaware of the complex problem-solving skills and creativity necessary to navigate the latest video games.

Most important, these young museum advocates were significantly more likely than their peers to enjoy art, science and history museums.

While this is good news, there was some not-so-good news, too. Nearly half of students said they “hardly ever” or never went to museums. Students told us that museums equal reading, and reading equals work, which they avoid. They were frustrated with museums, saying there are “lots of things we can’t touch” and “I think about sleeping. I hope you will make a museum that is interactive and we can do more activities.”

Caucasian students appeared to be generally more positive about museums than other children, and while wealthy private-school students were extraordinarily enthusiastic about museums, students at the least affluent school were the least likely to visit museums. This mirrors the typical demographic patterns that we find in most of our surveys of museum visitors and members, who tend to be disproportionately Caucasian and affluent. If museums want to change the perception that they are primarily for affluent Caucasians, a crucial step might involve completely rethinking the role and process of field trips for younger students. The patterns we want to change may already be set by the middle-school years.

The big thing we noticed is that overall, core middle-school interests have not changed much. The content of magazines like Seventeen and Girl’s Life (GL), for example, has not altered dramatically over the past few decades. The same issues and problems prey on young girls today as they did 20 years ago. Classroom visits, survey responses and collages only further confirmed that core influences have persisted.

What has changed, however, is the medium. The way kids communicate is very different. They are e-mailing, texting and instant messaging. Similarly, their comfort with technology is greater because they have grown up around it. Technology—and the places they like to go—changes their expectations of experiences when they go to museums. They think technology is cool and desire it both in and out of the museum.

But what do kids actually like to do in their leisure time? Number one, at well over 90 percent of respondents, is hanging out with friends. Friends are so important to kids this age as they begin to separate themselves from their parents and enter a period where their world revolves around their peers. Playing sports (not to be confused with watching sports) came in close behind for both genders.

Movies, computer stuff, television and video games are all popular entertainment options. But while movies and television are still fairly passive, computer and Internet usage increasingly involves active creation of content, not just random surfing of websites. Additionally, video games are increasingly complex, including role-playing, complicated problem-solving and components that players can design themselves. It is a far cry from Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. video games of yore.

We carefully coded the collages to determine what things most interested these kids. Coming out on top were the major sports: Baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer appeared on more than half of the collages. Athletics, which included things like running, skateboarding and swimming, also appeared on about a third of collages. The students also tended to include the names of friends and images of people who were not entertainment-based celebrities.

Overall, however, these top-ten lists mask one important detail: Differences in collages were not driven by race or socio-economic status or other factors as much as gender. Indeed, gender was the biggest factor in how a child answered the survey and created a collage. The biggest difference we noticed between the genders is that girls do more. Except for a few stereotypically male activities and interests, girls tend to be more interested in people and things and do more stuff, and more things show up on their collages. Boys and girls, already at this age, are two different species.

True, some leisure-time interests were fairly gender-less. Boys and girls both selected hanging out with friends as their top leisure-time activity, followed by playing sports and going to the movies. Other items that seemed to cross genders easily were people, pets and animals, and food. Yet some gender stereotypes prevailed. Girls showed more interest in shopping and arts and crafts, while boys showed more interest in video games and building or fixing stuff.

Upon closer study, nuances became apparent in the data. While girls do more things and overall have broader interests, some boys showed tremendous depth of interest and tremendous creativity. Girls might be interested in 17 things, but boys were more likely to be deeply interested in four to five. At the first school we visited, two boys made it clear they were annoyed by the lack of military magazines in our stash. One boy at a different school gave a lecture on WWII aviation. Yet another had a deep and abiding passion for M*A*S*H and old-fashioned Western movies.

Additionally, boys were more likely to go to museums and enjoy them, while girls were twice as likely to say “no way” about visiting museums. Girls liked zoos and aquariums the most, and then there was a big drop in interest in science and art museums. Boys, by contrast, had a more even response rate for the various types of museums and liked science and history museums significantly more than girls.

Given that men 18 to 29 have significantly less interest in museums than women the same age, this surprised us. Boys seem to be more interested in museums than girls during the middle-school years, while young men are less interested than young women. Which begs the question, what happens in high school? Do girls become more interested in museums as they grow older or do boys lessen their interest? Unfortunately, we cannot answer these questions yet, but it is an interesting topic for future exploration.

The biggest differences showed up on the collages. When looking at a collage, it is remarkably easy to tell at a glance whether it is made by a boy or a girl. The boy collages are filled with stereotypically boy things: sports, motor stuff (cars, motorcycles, etc.), video games, athletics and athletes. In contrast, girls had fashion, celebrities, beauty and horoscopes. Specific brand names showed up much more frequently on girl collages. Most surprisingly, considering that girls were more likely to enjoy art museums than boys, art showed up on boy collages at twice the rate of its appearance on girl collages.

We wanted to see if there was one collage that represented a typical boy in our project, and one collage that represented a typical girl. The answer was yes for both.

A typical boy collage (see p. 44) includes five of the most common items: major sports (basketball is written in), motor stuff (cars, a motorcycle), video games (“Call of Duty 4”), a person and athletics (skateboarding). Yet the interests of boys are not as wide-ranging as that of girls, so fewer boys tended to exhibit all these interests, while some relatively uncommon interests seem to run deeper. So while this boy is our “typical” boy, he also showed an interest in the military, which was by no means representative of all boys.

Girls were different. They generally had broader interests that were significantly more likely to be shared with other girls. Although some girls had very deep interests in specific items, even they were more likely to be interested in a number of other things. In short, girls do more and have wider interests; girls who exhibited deep interest in a topic also showed wider interests than boys who exhibited deep interests.

That being said, when we reverse-filtered the collage content analysis to identify the girl collage with the most elements in common with other girls (see p. 47), it struck us as a very typical girl collage indeed, much more so than the typical boy collage. She likes clothes and shoes. She likes certain brands of cosmetics. Sports, celebrities, food. They all appear on her collage, as they did on the collages of many, many other girls.

Yet the girl behind the typical-girl collage is not necessarily a typical girl. While her collage is typical, and much of our conversation was about typical-girl stuff including shoes and boys, she also made some of the most thoughtful comments about museums. She had thought carefully about her recent visit to the Smithsonian museums, as well as other museums, and had some of the deepest, most observant things to say. So while she herself is not necessarily a typical girl, her collage, nevertheless, is very typical.

What does it boil down to? For the most part, boys like boy things and girls like girl things. The main connective thread between the genders is that whatever they do, they want to do it with their friends.

So what do tween and early-teen kids want from a museum? They want to be treated in an age-appropriate manner. In comment after comment, they wanted exhibits they could relate to and interactive activities that were fun. Give us “more activities, and not just for little kid[s],” they said, making a distinction that they considered most hands-on activities too juvenile. On the flip side, they wanted to have fun, which learning is not for them (at least not yet). “Please do not think that kids will go [to] these things just to learn, they need some fun things in these museums.” Overall, most simply are not quite ready to learn for the sake of learning as entertainment.

They also want to express themselves and have personal experiences. One girl wrote, “I think it would be more fun if you can learn things about what you like, basically having your own museum, and the actual things you want to see,” a sentiment that is becoming more evident among youth growing up in the digital era. It was easy to imagine this girl wandering though a museum, picking out items and creating her own exhibit of the things she loved.

Museum experiences need to be primarily social. They are all about their friends at this age, and they want museums to concentrate on activities that friends or teams can do together. Mysteries or puzzles to solve, games to play—anything that they can do with friends (or even things a family could have fun doing together) is more likely to hit the mark.

The idea that museums were “big” came up a number of times. It became clear that larger museums were a bit overwhelming to these not-yet-adults who are in a hurry to grow up. For larger museums, breaking down the experience into smaller, more manageable pieces is key.

Tweens and teens also love free stuff. The word “free” has extra-special power for these kids. Teen magazines give freebies out every single day. The list of stuff, ranging from lip gloss to swimsuits, appears in every issue and in daily e-mails. Never underestimate the importance of something tangible that kids can take home with them.

The appearance of things is important as well. Middle-school students have a heightened sensitivity for things that are for “little kids.” They are growing up, and any materials, exhibits or websites you create for this audience should reflect that. During our collage exercise, girls absolutely destroyed Cosmo Girl! and GL with their scissors. Something was visually appealing about these magazines that made girls gravitate to them. Boys, in contrast, selected Sports Illustrated first, largely due to the subject matter. SI aside, boys tended to choose, and decimate, an independent skateboarding magazine called Slap.

A lesson learned from observing what magazines kids selected is that layout and design are important. The appearance of Cosmo Girl!, GL and Slap is appealing and age-appropriate to this audience. If designing anything specifically for kids this age, it is worth intently studying these periodicals for design ideas (though not necessarily for content).

But nothing takes the place of getting the input and involving kids. While analyzing this data from the survey and the collages was fun and intriguing, nothing beat the time spent with the kids in the classroom. The data didn’t tell the story—it filled out and confirmed what we observed in the classroom from talking to students and listening to what they had to say.

The collage activity was probably the most crucial element of our research because it gave the kids something fun and personal to do and a place from which dialogue could start. That we could also mine the collages for data on interests and desires was a tremendous bonus, but they were far more valuable as a catalyst for conversation between hip and savvy 13-year-olds and very lame adults.

Middle-school students have many common interests and traits, but they are also developing deep and abiding interests that are unusual and delightful. Today’s middle-school students have a huge advantage over our former middle-school selves in that they can nurture their unusual interests in old Westerns, gourmet cooking or WWII aviation through the Internet and find communities of like-minded people. They are also more empowered today than we were, as they use the Internet to make their voices heard.

Museums are in a position to nurture these interests, not only through the Internet that these children cannot fathom living without, but also through programs and exhibits that can help create a very cool place for middle-school students.


Susie Wilkening is a senior consultant and James Chung is president of Reach Advisors, a strategy and research firm. This article was adapted from their recent book, Life Stages of the Museum Visitor: Building Engagement Over a Lifetime, published by the AAM Press.

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