Thursday, November 29, 2012

Who's in a family? 3 ways museums can welcome all families

If your museum doesn’t consider “families” its core audience group, it probably should. Now more than ever, most people coming to museums are visiting in family groups. Through research initiatives like the Family Learning Forum, we’ve come to know the benefits of inviting families into museums- for us and our communities. And if you didn't notice, the Family Learning Forum is a project of the USS Constitution Museum, a history museum. Catering to families is no longer solely the realm of children's museums. In an effort to serve families better, science centers are incorporating early childhood spaces and art museums are developing backpacks full of materials to engage children in their galleries.

Families are the units of our visitorship. When we offer family rates, family passes, and family memberships it’s important for us to think about what we mean by the word “family” and the assumptions we might make about what a family looks like, how many family members there are, and who’s who based on gender, race, and age.

Here are three ways to help make our museums more welcoming places for all families:

1. Define (or better yet, explicitly refrain from defining) your institution’s understanding of the word “family” in broad terms, somewhere prominent, like on your website or at the admissions desk. 

This is the easiest step to take in welcoming all families to your museum. Craft some language to let folks know that their family is welcome and won’t be scrutinized. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco does this simply and elegantly on their Family Pass.
"You define family - not us!"

2. Use the word “grown-up” “caregiver” or “adult” instead of “parent” “mom/dad” “grandparent” etc.

This suggestion can be used in signage as well as in conversations between visitors and floor staff. You don’t know who is accompanying a child to the museum, so avoid alienating your visitor or embarrassing yourself by keeping your language neutral and not making assumptions about relationships between family members. 

Examples of non-neutral language: 
  •  Family membership is limited to members of a single household.
  • Are you lost? Let’s go find your Mom.
  • Your granddaughter is so smart!
  • Is Dad at home today?
Examples of family-inclusive language:
  • All children must be accompanied by an adult caregiver. 
  • Uh-oh! Where's your grownup? 
  • Is this little-one with you? 
  • You all look like you’re having fun today! 

Family-inclusive signage at Boston Children's Museum

3. Make your policies fit your philosophy, not the other way around. 

If you've decided to tell your visitors that you support and validate their personal definition of "family", you might be worried that you'll start losing money on family passes and family memberships. Don't let that deter you from continuing to offer them, just change the way you think about them. Try offering memberships at rates based on the number of adults and children they want to put on the membership card. Before changing your family pass policy, try the Yerba Buena model- you might be surprised at how few people try and take advantage. And if it doesn't work, you can always institute a cap number later.

"And how many people would you like to put on your family membership?"

How does your museum welcome all families?

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