Why are museums wary of new audiences? Interview with Laura Huerta Migus

Laura Huerta Migus is the Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM). Prior to joining ACM, Laura was the Director of Professional Development and Inclusion Initiatives of the Association of Science & Technology Center, where she was responsible for the planning and implementation of all professional development and equity and diversity efforts.

In January, ACM hosted a day-long conference in Chicago for Illinois participants in Museums for All, a program through which museums offer free or reduced price admission to low-income families. That program sparked a discussion that led to this interview.

I know you are deeply involved with the Cultural Competence Learning Institute – can you talk about that?

The Cultural Competence Learning Institute (CCLI) is an IMLS-funded project led by the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (CDM) and involving the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM), the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), and the Garibay Group. The approach of the institute is informed by the cumulative learned and lived experience of the different partner institutions around promoting inclusive practice in museums.

Traditionally in the museum world when issues of diversity, inclusion, and access have come up at individual institutions, the focus has been public-facing efforts – access programs to get certain people in the door, programs like free nights, cultural festivals, and exhibits around cultural content. But a museum can have a robust portfolio of those activities, and it still does not really add up to being an inclusive organization. CCLI helps institutions spend a whole year identifying a particular space in the museum that they think is the key to the lever for really promoting organizational transformation around cultural competence and inclusion.

When museums participate in CCLI they are asked to put a team together. We require that the CEO or an equivalent executive team member is an active member of the team, and we take a cohort approach. We spend a year together helping teams work through and implement these strategic initiatives. The idea is that for institutions to really make this change they need to have four things: the right internal team looking at an issue; dedicated time to do that continuous work; accountability; and external support and coaching. We are really focused on how we catalyze organizational change – how do we help to support the shift in organizational culture that can open up the opportunity for the museum to understand how it has to change itself, and become a truly inclusive organization from the inside out?

Children weaving with paper looms at CDM. Photo by Lisa Ellsworth.

When we spoke in January, we discussed a tension that is evident in many museums that want to invite lower income families into museums, but are simultaneously made uncomfortable by this audience.

When efforts to bring in new audiences start, and those people actually show up, it can be a very conflict-ridden experience. When you bring new visitors into the museum the assumptions that were invisible before become visible. This can be uncomfortable because it challenges the mindset that there was nothing wrong with the way things have been, when those groups were passively excluded.

Museums want to be seen as good, just, and virtuous organizations, and so may take on these kinds of programs, but it will force a change, and uncomfortable dialogues, when you really take them on. There’s a lack of skill on how to have those conversations that keeps those efforts isolated, or keeps people from taking them on to begin with.

Museums staff generally are trained to serve visitors who come to the museum already knowledgeable about what is accepted in that environment. They have not been prepared for how to orient or welcome new visitors who might not bring that same knowledge, and so when these visitors don’t “behave  properly” they can be seen as burdensome and problematic.

Museum staff have also shared feedback they have received from established visitors who don’t like sharing their space with new people who don’t know “the rules” of how it’s appropriate to behave in a particular museum space.  Some museums that have really developed cultural competence in how to welcome diverse audiences are now getting a much more diverse cross-section of their community. As a result, visitors who consider themselves the primary museum audience are coming into contact with people from other backgrounds that they don’t normally have to interact with. This sometimes results in negative visitor-to-visitor interactions that staff then need to deal with.

You talk about the challenge of welcoming “new people who don’t know the rules of how it’s appropriate to behave.” Can you talk more about this?  What are the specific challenges?

Learning in children’s museums was based on this idea of children playing, and parents as teachers to their children. That only works if, as a parent, you have some capacity to take on that role. If you come from a lived experience where you were given a grounding to advocate for your child’s intellectual and cognitive development, then you can engage. This is the unspoken understanding with staff at children’s museums about your role as a parent.

If you come from another culture in which the traditional dynamic between child and parent skewed in a different direction – for example, the parent is more of the authority figure, and their role is more about values development rather than teaching academic content – then when you come into a children’s museum you may assume that you can let your child loose because there are staff there, and those staff should be in charge of your child.

Another dynamic that can contribute to differences in expectations relates to poverty. There have been a number of studies about how poverty and financial stress affect parenting. For a parent who is under-resourced, their big effort may be just getting their family to the museum. Negotiating the time, financial, childcare, and transportation resources for a visit represents an exponentially higher investment for a resource-stretched family than for a middle class family, who is likely to have reliable transportation and funds available to support a visit. In some cases, this increased emotional investment can result in adult caregivers that arrive already exhausted at the door, ready to hand over responsibility for the experience on the museum. If floor staff are not aware of this as a possible reality, again, it is easy to think of these parents as not engaged in their child’s learning or, at worst, being irresponsible.

Parent and child participating in a program at the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum

What little we know about learning in children’s museums tells us that learning happens when experiences are facilitated by adults. An article by Louise Archer in the most recent issue of ASTC’s Dimensions magazine looked at the experiences of five disadvantaged families to science centers, and found that while all families seemed to have “fun,” only one of these families had a “meaningful” visit, as determined by measures of engagement and learning; this was attributed to differences in family discussion. Why are we working so hard to get these families into the museum if they are not getting this facilitated experience, and therefore most likely not learning?

I would agree, and our own professional standards acknowledge, that the highest quality experiences in children’s museums are well-facilitated experiences. However, just because a family doesn’t “learn” the academic content of an exhibit in the way we expect in a classroom setting doesn’t mean that learning is not happening. It’s important to embrace a wider definition of learning in museum settings to truly gauge impact and success.

For example, Cecilia Garibay, a museum evaluator and researcher, conducted a study of Latino parents. She worked with focus groups from a variety of different institutions, including museums, zoos, and children’s museums, to understand what motivated families to visit. For many families their motivation was around providing a positive social experience for the family. For these families the facilitating of access to the content was less important than the social aspect.

Another study examined a bilingual exhibit, and found that for Latino families one of the values of visitation was about parents being able to offer their children a well-rounded experience in the context of the family. It was about strengthening family bonds.

Participants in the Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative study; this image is from a SenseCam worn by a participant, and was found here.

Learning outcomes framed as academic content acquisition is a red herring for early learners. In general, I am uncomfortable with tying children’s museums to specific academic outcomes, because the dosage, nature, and length of museum visits, along with the child’s developmental stage, is too variable to make this correlation strongly. Children’s museums are places to have positive, child-centered family experiences. And that is a learning experience. These are spaces where a family can engage in an educationally-rich environment and experience together. These opportunities don’t exist in other spaces.

Even parents will get more content if the experience is facilitated, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get anything without facilitation. Sometimes it’s the visit itself, not what happens on the visit, that’s of value.

So are you suggesting that the importance of children’s museums is NOT that they have educational value?

I think that children’s museum have great educational value, as long as education is defined more broadly than school-based academic outcomes. But children’s museums are so much more. Every children’s museum is four types of institutions under one roof. They are destinations – places that people visit to experience exhibits and programs. They are community resources – points of civic pride, as well as local employers. They are social service organizations, serving as advocates for children on topics such as accessibility and healthy living. And they are educational laboratories, testing, modeling, and promoting child-centered learning approaches.

Not all children’s museums function strongly in all of these areas, but there is a little bit of all of these things in every children’s museum, or at least aspirations toward all of them. I don’t think that other museums function across all of these areas, but children’s museums do.



3 thoughts on “Why are museums wary of new audiences? Interview with Laura Huerta Migus

  1. Thanks for this interview with Laura. It relates very specifically to the research by Suzanne Gaskins about different styles of family learning that I wrote about in recent post on http://www.museumcommons.org. Most US museums assume one “correct” style, and these assumptions underlie many of the issues Laura discusses.

  2. Laura’s description of learning outcomes and goals for children’s museums should apply to ALL museums. IMO, Museums—be they science or art or any other cultural topic—should not grade themselves primarily on learning in the traditional academic cognitive realm. One laudable outcome I can see for CCLI is demystifying the museum experience for non-traditional audiences, making museums desirable destinations for family outings. That in itself can have tremendous impact on children as they grow into culturally competent adults.

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