Monday, April 12, 2010

Who Comes to Children’s Museums?

According to our survey of 42 children’s museums, the majorities of visitors are repeat users and live in the community.

The largest audience segment is families with children in preschool-kindergarten (40 museums serve that audience). Grades 1-3 are also a major audience for children’s museums (38 serve this group).

In addition, over half (26) of the museums in our survey say they also serve upper elementary ages all the way through grade 6, and nearly a third of respondents (17) say they serve teenagers.

Target Audience

We asked the children’s museums to also identify who their target audience is. This pie chart makes it clear that while teens and older children are coming to children’s museums, they are not who the museum is designed for.

Looking just at the children who are coming to these museums, they seem to mostly range in age from NB – 8, with somewhat more preschoolers than children in early elementary school. This appears to be consistent with other studies that have been done in the field. The Bay Area Discovery Museum, for example, has done an audience demographic survey and found their average visitor is age 4.

It should come as no surprise that children’s museums appeal to very young children and their adults. Broadly speaking, children’s museums often describe their audience as Early Childhood, which has been defined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) as NB-8, exactly the audience we see in this survey.


Families appear, in this pie chart, as the single largest audience for children’s museums. I am thrilled to see families identified so clearly as a major audience.

Historically, children’s museums were for children and adults were seen as chaperones, but were not the target audience. Over time, some children’s museums added content for adults – labels, and take-home flyers for example. But the field has changed and there is now widespread recognition that adults are a key part of the visit, as well as an audience in and of themselves. So it is exciting to see children’s museums thinking about serving the whole family.

To address family audiences means serving both individuals (kids, adults, seniors) and groups (family units). It means finding ways to tune activities for a range of developmental levels, as well as for intergenerational learning. It is complicated and I am curious about the ways children’s museums address adult learners in particular. Are adults seen as an audience only in relation to their children – as play partners and lab assistants, coaches and cheerleaders, etc. – or are they understood as having as many needs, and diverse learning styles, as their children.

From the responses we got to the survey (see pie chart above:ALL AUDIENCES SERVED) it looks like most (33) of the museums consider parents an audience and most again (36) serve teachers, but only 7 have any kind of relationship with hobbyists, 8 with researchers, and 11 with other museum professionals. So although almost half of the audience for children’s museums is adults, it seems most children’s museums are considering adults as an audience together with their children, rather than an audience in-and-of itself.

This is interesting in part because it is happening in other parts of the museum field. For example:

Children’s Museums could be serving adults whose children are in the social services system (Providence Children’s Museum does this), they could be the host site for mommy-and-me groups, book groups, and museum research departments, they could partner with education schools to provide course credit for time spent working at the museum, etc. I am sure that you all can name many more groups of adults who would have an interest in what your museum does, and could make use of the organization’s expertise.


I want to take a moment to focus on the teen audience in children’s museums. The fact that teens show up in this survey as an audience at all, when the target audience is pre-school and the majority of the audience is under age 8, is fairly surprising. Are they coming to a children’s museum as part of a family outing with a younger sibling or do they see this as an age-appropriate outing for themselves?

Some of the respondents did address this. One commented that their age range has grown following an expansion and exhibit renewal. So that may represent a spike, rather than a trend. Another is a combination science and children’s museum. It is likely that in this case older kids are coming for the science center and then also checking out the children’s museum. And a third museum in the survey is, in fact, not a children’s museum in the typical sense but an urban museum using technology as a basis for creative project-based learning. Their average age visitor is 8.

Those museums are not the norm for organizations in the ACM membership. More commonly children’s museums find it very challenging to target older kids. The Boston Children’s Museum is one example of an organization that at one time considered 11 year olds part of the core audience. They had a teen clubhouse just for older kids. After evaluating their attendance, BCM realized there were not enough ‘tween and teen visitors to justify dedicated exhibit space. Instead, they decided to focus on programming for older kids, and leave the exhibits for the younger ones.

I like the strategy that BCM ended up with. I have long believed that children’s museums have the potential to attract older children by creating age appropriate roles for them, such as junior staff, or camper. I think it is interesting for children’s museums to find ways to include older children in their audience – just not primarily as visitors.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

Good details and contrast between dark shadows and white areas. You may know the work of the Greek-Italian surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico, much of whose work you can browse at This one,, has the same feel as your drawings.