ACM TIG Week: Supporting Access to Museums through Evaluation by Susan Foutz & Bethany Thomas

Susan Foutz
Susan Foutz

Hi! We are Susan Foutz, director of research and evaluation at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and Bethany Thomas, vice president of programs and education engagement at the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. Our museums are two of the twelve Indiana cultural institutions participating in the Access Pass program. Access Pass provides low-cost admission to qualifying families enrolled in state-wide assistance programs. However, providing access is only part of the equation for serving these families. We also have to create inclusive and appealing experiences.

Bethany Thomas
Bethany Thomas

Over the past two years, the Access Pass partner institutions have increased their focus on program evaluation. Partners are interested in learning how well they are serving this audience and what they can do to be more welcoming and relevant. A recent national landscape study on DEAI practices found that nearly half of the responding museums don’t collect visitors’ demographic data on a regular basis. We’ve been fortunate to receive a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to support program evaluation. Annual surveys have shown that Access Pass families are more racially diverse than Indiana’s population in general and have, on average, lower household incomes than those who purchase memberships. That’s good information, but we wanted to know how to better serve this audience. Susan facilitated a series of focus groups with Access Pass families to do just that.

We thought carefully about how to structure the focus groups. We hosted them at local library branches instead of the partner museums. Susan demonstrated an openness to feedback by framing the conversation with a statement that museums like many places in American society have long been a place of privilege—in terms of race, wealth, and education. Being self-critical made space for an honest conversation on how museums can be more welcoming and relevant.

Lessons Learned:

  • Welcoming diverse audiences starts with representing the community. Parents in our focus groups said they feel welcomed and comfortable at a cultural institution when they see staff, visitors, and images of people who are diverse in terms of race, gender-identity, and abilities.
  • At the Indiana State Museum, we’ve observed that Access Pass users are a diverse group of enthusiastic museum goers – both racially and in experience with our museum. They come for all kinds of programs as well as general visits. Rarely does a weekend go by without multiple Access Pass families coming in – it’s a thriving program. We’re also seeing a broader representation of socioeconomic groups through this program.
  • Never underestimate the power of customer service. All visitors expect excellent customer service regardless of how much they paid to visit the museum. This means creating welcoming environments that help them feel safe and comfortable in a space that might be unfamiliar to them.

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arts, Culture, and Museums (ACM) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACM TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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