What's in a Visit?
How One Day at the Exploratorium Can Make a Difference
by Exploratorium Staff • August 18, 2015
In June, Director of Visitor Research Josh Gutwill presented the findings of his team's research to Exploratorium staff. (Photo by Kaitlin Underwood/Exploratorium)
For some, a day at a museum means a day of mental stimulation and immersion into an array of new ideas and cultures. For others, it feels oddly similar to swallowing medicine: mildly cumbersome, but rewarding in the end. The Exploratorium is a place that works to change this apprehensive mentality towards museums and replace it with a feeling of self-guided learning and exploration.
However, few museum-goers consider how the experience truly impacted them: do their interests, confidence, and understanding of the material change at all? More importantly, once they exit the museum, does the knowledge stay with them?
Josh Gutwill, Director of Visitor Research at the Exploratorium, and his team recently studied the effect a single-visit to the Exploratorium can have on emerging adults. They define an emerging adult as “18-29 years old, without children, at a stage in life between adolescence and mature adulthood.” Gutwill and his team were interested in researching this demographic because they felt with so much change happening in their lives—new jobs, partners, homes— emerging adults are an impressionable group that has the powerful ability to incorporate the knowledge and ideas acquired in the museum into their daily lives.
This all goes back to one of the principles of the Exploratorium: Founder Frank Oppenheimer wanted visitors to the museum to leave feeling that they had the ability to make sense of the world through the application of science. Gutwill set out on this project to examine Oppenheimer’s original aspiration that a single visit could influence visitors.
The project was funded by the Institute of Museum & Library Services, and included 244 participants selected randomly. The requirements for their involvement were that they were between 18-29 years of age, had no spouse or children, and did not come to the museum with children. The participants were given a pre-museum survey, which included dozens of questions concerning their self-efficacy and interest in science and art. After interacting with different exhibits, the participants completed a post-survey with similar questions. The final step for the researchers was to follow-up with the participants three months later. This last portion of the study still needs to analyzed by the researchers, but the pre and post surveys contain some promising findings.
According to the survey, eighty-one percent of participants with high prior interest in science found their interest was supported in the museum, while 66% of participants with low prior interest in science felt their science interest triggered by the museum.
Perhaps most importantly, Gutwill found a small but statistically significant impact on self-efficacy, with participants feeling more capable to do and learn science after visiting the museum. There was statistically no difference in the level of impact between repeat visitors and first time visitors.
Ultimately, the study showed that even a single-visit to the Exploratorium could have an effect on visitors. This is terrific news for the museum world. Following the final analysis of this study, Gutwill hopes to look at other types of museums or conduct follow-up research to see if the affect of a visit is more or less impactful at different lengths of time after visiting. He would also love to be able to answer the question: what is it that allows visitors to feel like they can “do” science?
This post was written by Communications Intern Kaitlin Underwood. Kaitlin is a rising senior at Indiana University Bloomington.