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Mother Lode: Five Ultra Moms and Why You want Them to Visit Your Museum

Category: Museum Magazine
Cartoon image of a superhero mom in a blue uniform with a cape.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 edition of Museum magazine.

Moms, the research shows, are a tough audience, hard to please and difficult to engage unless the children are involved. Parental behavior is passed down to the children. Do moms, and dads, hold the future of your museum in their hands?

My friend Becky is a terrific mom. With two preschool daughters, a full-time job as a project manager for a financial institution and other demands, she doesn’t have a lot of leisure time. But one activity that is always high on her list is visiting museums with her family. Why? Because the visits are stimulating and engaging not only to her daughters but also to Becky and her husband, Aaron.

For Becky, museums of all types are age-appropriate for her entire family because she thinks of museums, particularly history-based museums, as a great way to learn more about the world we live in, while also teaching her daughters a love and appreciation of history. Becky and her family are dream visitors for museums because of their interest and engagement. But neither Becky nor Aaron is a typical parent when it comes to museums.

Moms: A Tough Audience

Over the past few years, Reach Advisors has been conducting waves of field-wide research for museums, and consistently we have found that moms are the most negative audience segment of all. Moms are:

  • least likely to feel their needs are met
  • least likely to be members and when they do join, they do so primarily to save money
  • more likely to focus on the needs of their children to the exclusion of any adult engagement
  • more likely to cycle in: and out of museums, based on what they perceive to be age-appropriate for their children

These findings paint a picture of women visiting museums for their children, feeling it is something they have to do for them. We even had one mom call museums “a necessary evil.” Ouch.

To learn more, we conducted additional research in 2010, partnering with 103 museums to field a quantitative survey of more than 40,000 core museum visitors, including more than 13,000 moms. (One caveat: the surveys were distributed via the e-mail lists of participating museums, so respondents were engaged with the museums at a high enough level to be on e-mail lists, making this a survey of regular museum visitors, not infrequent visitors or the public-at-large.)

In this study, respondents were asked two questions: 1. Why do you visit this museum? and 2. Why do you visit museums in general? We then filtered the responses, looking for moms who consistently gave the same reason for visiting in both questions. About two-thirds of moms were easily segmented into five categories. And we learned some things about dads, too.

Ultra-Fun Moms

Ultra-Fun Moms consistently gave fun as a reason for visiting museums. In an open-ended follow-up question, we asked these moms why fun at museums was important to them. They said things like valuing “interactive exhibits for kids to learn, seeing my child smiling and enjoying herself.”

Ultra-Fun Moms tend to have the youngest children and generally are happier visitors. When visiting museums, she is looking for hands-on activities for her children, but of all moms, she is the least likely to enjoy programs and events. (They don’t appear to want to set their watches by activities so much as simply drop in.) Their favorite museums to visit are children’s museums, zoos and aquariums, and science centers.

Overall, we like the Ultra-Fun Moms because they come to museums often with a positive outlook. If they infect their children with the same fun bug, that is a great thing. But we do have some concerns that these moms are coming to museums for their children to have fun, and they may not be that engaged themselves, an important distinction to make.

Ultra-Family-Time Moms

Ultra-Family-Time Moms consistently gave “family time” as a reason for visiting, and when asked why family time at museums was important to them, they said things like “help[s] us engage together and learn.”

Ultra-Family-Time Moms are the youngest segment of moms, and their children are primarily in elementary school or younger. Interestingly, despite the focus on family time, only 55 percent of these moms say they typically visit museums with a spouse or partner; family time appears to mean mom and the kids, but not necessarily dads. (Ninety-three percent of college-educated mothers in the U.S. are married, and our sample of moms is overwhelmingly college-educated, indicating that divorce or single-motherhood is not the primary reason that dads don’t accompany their families to museums.)

When visiting museums, Ultra-Family-Time Mom is looking for hands-on activities for her children, and similar to the Ultra-Fun Moms, her favorite museums are children’s museums, zoos and aquariums, and science centers.

While we are glad that Ultra-Family-Time Moms value museums as great places to spend time with family, and that they value museums as terrific places of learning and fun for their children, we are concerned that these moms may not be that engaged personally with the content of the museum.

Ultra-Learning Moms

At nearly a quarter of moms, the Ultra-Learning Moms are the largest of the mom segments, and they consistently gave “learning opportunities for my children” as a reason for visiting. When asked why this was important to them, they said things like “we greatly value education and like to provide as many opportunities as possible for our children to experience hands-on learning and discovery.”

Ultra-Learning Moms primarily have children in elementary school. though a large segment of homeschooling families also fall into this category.

Ultra-Learning Moms are the least satisfied and most negative of any visitor segment we have yet to come across, and they are the most likely to be cutting back on museum visits during the economic downturn. Their written-in comments also indicate a tendency to equate museums with work, for both themselves and for their kids. There is a sense that it is the job of their children to learn something at the museum so that they can succeed in life. While we agree with the idea that museums can provide children with excellent tools for adult life, overall this is not the most cheering outlook about museums.

When visiting museums, like all other moms, the Ultra-Learning Mom is looking for hands-on activities for her children, but she is also a bit more likely to seek out interaction with museum staff. Her favorite museums to visit are children’s museums, zoos and aquariums, and science centers, but she is also more likely to visit natural history museums.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when we asked respondents about their early childhood museum memories, Ultra-Learning Moms were the most negative of any segment, and their memories were generally less detailed. They were less likely to remember objects or history-based museums but were more likely to remember science museums.

While we are glad that Ultra-Learning Moms value museums as great places for their children to learn, we are troubled by how negative these moms are, by how much they seem to equate museums with work, and most of all by how these moms don’t seem to take pleasure for themselves in museums.

Ultra-Curious Moms

Although not a large segment, the Ultra-Curious Mom is the most intriguing. She consistently gave “curiosity” as a reason for visiting, noting: “When you’re curious, you’re more open to learning the subject. You become more engaged in the subject matter and it’s fun to learn. I love seeing the light bulb go off in my kids’ heads (mine, too)!”

And already we see the first key difference between these moms and the other segments of moms. In the comment, the mom inserted herself into the museum experience. Yes, it’s all about her kids-but it is about her, as well. Unlike most of the other moms, Ultra-Curious Moms have a strong intrinsic motivation to visit museums, as they personally enjoy museums. But that is matched by strong extrinsic motivations on behalf of their children, with whom they want to share that innate curiosity.

The Ultra-Curious Mom is generally older than the other mom segments, with older children. She is a relatively happy visitor, and when visiting museums, like all other moms, she is looking for hands-on activities for her children. But she is also significantly more likely to seek out objects—and artifact-based experiences, programs and events, and direct interaction with museum staff.

These moms also enjoy the widest variety of museums, with at least two-thirds enjoying historic sites, history museums, natural history museums, art museums, botanical gardens and arboretums, and nature centers. This is a significantly greater variety than the other mom segments, and true regardless of the age of an Ultra-Curious Mom’s children. That is, Ultra-Curious Moms, even those who have preschoolers, perceive museums to be age-appropriate for their children, regardless of the children’s ages, because museums of all types are simply age-appropriate for children. In contrast, the other Ultra Moms perceive some museums to be age appropriate for some children some of the time. It is a very different outlook, and it may have long-term ramifications, as the children of other Ultra Moms may not be experiencing as wide a variety of museums and museum experiences as we would like.

With their high levels of engagement with museums, we suspected that these women had positive experiences with museums when they were children. Turns out they did, and they were more likely to remember art, natural history or history museums/historic sites, indicating that as children these women went to a wider variety of museums. Their memories were also quite vivid and detailed, and were more likely to include collections and objects, such as this one:

“Whale bones hanging from the ceiling and a polar bear by the staircase. [It] was a crazy hodgepodge of stuff in the rooms of an old house. It was in fascinating disorder and seemed alive with history and magic.”

Overall, the memories of Ultra-Curious Moms were evocative and emotive, and had a quality that the others moms lacked. We suspect that those positive experiences in childhood have carried over to their adulthood and are a reason for their continued enthusiasm and engagement with museums.

This engaged (and philanthropic) segment is rather small, however, and attracting and engaging them may be crucial for a museum’s long-term sustainability. But is it really as small a segment as the initial findings indicate? A deeper look at the data indicates there is a larger segment of what we call “Latent-Curious Moms.” And, except for one thing, they behave just like the Ultra-Curious Moms.

What’s that one thing? These moms were not consistent in their responses. When asked why they visited museums, they cited curiosity, but not when they indicated why they visited this museum, the museum that sent the survey request. So curiosity is their primary motivation for visiting museums, and they tend to be positive engaged museum visitors, but the museum they responded to is leaving them, for some reason, cold. That makes them, in our view, low-hanging fruit. Smart, savvy, curious women who, if engaged, would behave like those fantastic Ultra-Curious Moms we love.

Together, the Latent-Curious and the Ultra-Curious Moms comprise 27 percent of moms who are core visitors, a significant segment of women who enjoy museums and are likely crucial to a museum’s future sustainability through their visits, memberships, financial gifts … and the engaged and curious children they raise.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane … It’s a Dad!

We had nearly 4,000 fathers of minor children respond to our survey, but that it is significantly less than the number of moms. Given that only 45 percent of moms reported that their spouses generally visit museums with them, this indicates that dads are not visiting, or engaging with, museums nearly as much as moms.

But what about the dads who did respond to the survey? Generally, they are slightly older than moms, with slightly older children. They generally matched moms for citing fun, family time and learning as their primary motivations. But the dads in our sample are over so percent more likely to be Ultra Curious than moms. Dads in general also had more intrinsic motivations than moms, are twice as likely as moms to say they are interested in the subject matter at the museum and are significantly more likely to enjoy object-based experiences. Yet they are also significantly less likely to prefer hands-on activities.

So the dads who did respond to the survey are overall more engaged and excited by museums than moms. But what makes them so? Perhaps it goes back to their childhood museum experiences. When we examined the memories of men versus those of women, we found that men are more likely than women to remember going to museums with their fathers. Those museum memories of fathers tended to fall into three categories.

  • dad sharing knowledge and imparting life lessons: “A war memorial… [My dad] said that learning about what our military sacrificed to gain freedom is exactly what we should be thinking about.”
  • precious time with dad: “I didn’t have to share his attention with anybody else .”
  • dad just becoming really jazzed about a museum and its contents: “Seeing my dad get really excited about the air and space museum.”

We observe it all the time when we visit museums. A family comes to a museum and the dad turns into a big, goofy kid who is excited to be there and share all the cool stuff with his children. It’s infectious and it impacts children and their perceptions of museums, forming our current working hypothesis:

A dad’s intrinsic interest and motivation for visiting museums increase interest and engagement of children … creating memorable experiences for children, particularly sons, who then are more likely to grow up into curious, life-long learners who love museums.

We plan on testing this hypothesis along with additional research to learn why dads do not come as often as moms, and whether we can attract more dads to museums.

Moms and Dads: Now What?

First and foremost, when it comes to pleasing parents, we cannot forget the k something? 2. Will everyone have fun? and 3· Will this promote family time? Try to hit all three.

The challenge then lies in focusing on the parents and their engagement, ensuring that exhibits and programs provide content aimed at their interests and intellects, igniting their curiosity, exciting them, creating more positive outcomes for both children and parents, and giving parents a reason to continue visiting the museum even when their children have grown up. While there is no silver-bullet answer on how to develop engagement with parents, here are some things we are tracking and continue to research:

  • Young adults under 30 are nearly twice as likely to enjoy hands-on activities as older, childless museum visitors. They grew up with hands-on activities, and in the long term, more and more adults will expect them, especially as they enter their peak childbearing years.
  • That being said, the most engaged adult respondents under so, including our Ultra-Curious parents, were more likely to remember narrative-based museum experiences from their childhoods and are more likely to seek out object-based experiences today. Objects and their stories are still incredibly. relevant and important to museum experiences for adults and children.
  • Parents who go to a wide variety of museums show significantly more adult engagement than parents who only go to a few types of museums that they perceive to be most age-appropriate for children. Encouraging families to visit a wide variety of museums appears to build more sustainable, committed audiences for museums of all types.
  • Engaging dad appears to increase engagement for the entire family. How can we further encourage dads to visit museums and infect children and moms with their enthusiasm?

This research only scratches the surface of our continuing analysis on moms and dads and museums, not to mention the more than 20,000 responses we have from grandparents and adults without minor children in their households. We continue to share many of the insights via our blog, located at


In this survey, respondents were asked to select one primary reason they visit museums, and then received an open-ended follow-up question, asking why their selection was important to them. When we segmented the responses by moms, we were struck by how different segments of moms used different words. The most common “buzzwords” for each segment are as follows:

As buzzwords, these words can be strategically deployed when promoting your museum. When thinking about your programs and exhibits for families, consider how families experience them, whom you are attracting, and whether using these buzzwords can expand and attract different segments of parents.

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