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Choosing Roles: Can we advance action AND enhance experience?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
In the course of my ongoing quest for stories of how museums make the world a better place, I met Douglas Meyer, a consultant who’s worked with a variety of nonprofits in the U.S. and internationally. For example, teaming with the firm of Bernuth & Williamson, he has worked with The Nature Conservancy, World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as well as agencies including the National Park Service and USFWS. Doug feels I have, on occasion, been unduly pessimistic about the choices museums face when it comes to being activists (for the environment or other issues). This week, he shares some research that bolsters his position.

Last year, in a post on this blog, Elizabeth asked museums, “Would you rather be loved, or would you rather save the world?” That is a question that none of us would like to answer for our organizations. Thankfully, it may be a choice that none of us have to make.
Recently, I worked with The Ocean Project on research that suggests “loved” vs. “save” might be a false dichotomy. As part of our ongoing look at public opinion on ocean issues, including the problem of ocean acidification, our partner, IMPACTS Research, surveyed a representative sample of the U.S. population, primarily online, and we then compared those results to on-site intercepts, gathering a random sample of more than 3,500 visitors to nine aquariums and three science museums. With reference to the question of beinggood or doing good, what we found was striking in two ways.
  1. Not surprisingly, we found that the public’s interest in a mission-related issue seems to spike during their visit. Concern about ocean acidification, for example, was notably higher in the on-site intercepts than in the online survey, even when the comparison was to those in the online survey who had visited an aquarium, zoo or science museum within the last twelve months. At the risk of oversimplification, not only are visitors self-selecting in terms of being interested enough to come into a museum, they are especially interested while there.
  2. Here is the shocker: how much visitors wanted to help. Our research focused on promoting personal action (rather than political advocacy). We knew from the public opinion survey and other research that visitors trust zoos, aquariums and museums on mission-related issues, but we wanted to go beyond that. And what we found in the on-site intercepts was truly inspiring—across the sample and almost without exception, visitors expressed both trust and appreciationfor information about how they could help address a mission-related issue. They agreed overwhelmingly with the statement, “Learning how to help conserve the ocean and its animals makes this a better place to visit.”   

In our view, these two findings help make the case that museums can inspire visitors to take action on mission critical issues, and do so in a way that visitors will appreciate.   

As the next step, The Ocean Project is asking for help in putting this research to the test. We recently issued a request for proposals, with funding available for aquariums that are interested in leading local or regional campaigns or initiatives to advance ocean conservation solutions.  It would be great to see aquariums and other museums continue to work together on these projects.  Please take a look at the RFP, and also send me examples of efforts that have both inspired visitor action, and enhanced visitor experience. Let’s see if we really can help save the world, and be loved for doing so!
I am encouraged to see the results of Douglas’ research! The question I raised in my original post (Choosing Roles: Facilitator or Advocate?) was whether taking an activist stand on a contentious issues (climate change, gun control, abortion) alienates certain audiences to the extent that it precludes the museum being a “safe space” for dialog and learning (a goal many museums list in their visions and plans). What do you think? Can museums both be advocates on hot topics while retaining the trust of population as a whole? And if not, which would you choose?

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One thought on “Choosing Roles: Can we advance action AND enhance experience?

  1. The Ocean Project research says the public wants museums to recommend. The public is looking for trusted voices, and it trusts museums. We already advocate for museum funding and for arts and science programs in schools. We can cross the line from education to community voice by using our mission as a guide–museums already stand for something, whether that is environment, social justice, or arts and creativity. Now let's share that with our communities by responding to civic needs and demonstrating our relevance. Thanks, Douglas and Elizabeth.

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