Monday 20 December 2010

Etched in memory

In the post Let´s talk business, last May, I was talking about analyzing memories as a way of evaluating the impact of the visit to a museum, of an exhibition or of a performance. I have been following with interest the publication of some of the results of a big survey with museum-goers on the blog Museum Audience Insight.

Museum Audience Insight is the blog of Reach Advisors, an american company of marketing research and strategy, that works with many museums. In the beginning of the year they launched a survey with the objective to collect data that could answer questions such as:

- Do childhood experiences at museums affect motivations and expectations of adult museum-goers?
- If certain types of childhood experiences are common among our most engaged adult visitors, can museums “stack the deck” so that children today have similar experiences?
- How crucial are school field trips to raising new generations of museum goers? How crucial are fathers?
- How important is curiosity as a motivation?

The survey was launched via mailing lists, Facebook pages and Twitter of 103 museums in 5 countries (USA, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia and India), although 97% of the respondents were from the USA. More than 40,000 responses were compiled. The methodology is explained here and here.

One of the main lines of inquiry concerned early childhood memories. The researchers are trying to understand, among other things, which are the factors that make a museum experience memorable; what ages are more impressionable; how early childhood memories differ among different audience segments. They asked people to talk about their earliest or strongest childhood museum memory, to say how old they were in that memory and who they were with. After that, they could go on and tell everything they remembered from the visit.

In general, the average age of memories was 7. More than half of the respondents remembered the presence of their mother. A bit less than half remembered their father. School visits were crucial for adult museum visitation, especially among people whose parents had a lower educational level. Memories related to history museums and historic sites (24%), natural history museums (21%), science museums and science centres (21%), art museums (17%).

In the last two months, Reach Advisors have published more and more specific results of the survey. All complemented with statements from people who took part in it. On the 28th of October there was a post totally dedicated to natural history museums (“When you´re seven, it´s all about the dinos, baby!”). That´s because data analysis indicated that memories from these particular museums stick around for decades, vivid and detailed memories. The determining factors here are the scale of the objects, dinosaurs, dioramas, but also, surprisingly, rocks and minerals. There are also many memories from natural history museums shops.

There was another post after that on interactive experiences (“Hands-on exhibits are very fun!” – Hands-on experiences in childhood memories). Researchers concluded that these are very important components in what concerns museum experiences. Nevertheless, memories that include only a hands-on experience tend to be less vivid and detailed, unless related to a specific object or an exhibition.

Another element that can profoundly mark memories from a visit is the building itself. In the post “A grand and beautiful building with cool things’ to look at” – Architecture in early childhood museums memories” we can read that in certain cases, more than the objects exhibited or the activities, it is the buildings that mark people´s memories. Nevertheless, scale and grandeur do not make them cold and prohibitive for children, contrary to what might be expected. Almst all memories are positive and certain among them refer to smaller and more modest buildings.

In the posts “Museums are awesome!” and “Awesome? Try fascinating!” we read about the analysis of language when describing the memory. The scale of the building and objects, as well as glitter, beauty and the exotic, impress children and stay in their memory. These experiences are described as ‘awesome’. On the other hand, experiences that have awaken an interest in a certain subject or the desire to learn more, the adjective mostly used is ‘fascinating’.

The last post of the series (more will follow) is entitled Career choices: how museums sometimes make a difference. It presents the cases (few, but significant, really) of people for whom a visit to a museum gave them an interest in a specific subject that determined their career choice when they became adults.

I was 8 years old when I first visited the Louvre. I was following my parents in the rooms and corridors of the museum, until we reached a huge staircase. And when I lifted my eyes, I saw at the top of the staircase the Victory of Samothrace. I was deeply impressed, I couldn´t take my eyes off her. I don´t know if it was at that precise moment, but it was during that trip that I told my parents I wanted to work in a museum (I changed my mind many times in the years that followed...). And every time I am back at the Louvre, I approach the staircase hoping and knowing that the Victory of Samothrace will have the same impact on me, as the first time.

What´s your earliest or strongest museum memory?

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