April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

The Use, Usefulness and Value of Museums in the U.S

José-Marie Griffiths, Donald W. King and Sarah E. Aerni, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, U.S.A.


This paper presents results of an IMLS-funded study (Uses and Potential Uses of Online Information) involving 6,000 national household telephone interviews of adults. All 6,000 interviews ask about number of in-person or remote (on-line) visits to all types of museums (e.g., arboretum, science, historical, children’s, etc) and whether the number of visits is more, the same as, or less now than in the past. One thousand of the interviews deal in-depth with in-person and remote visits to museums (including through television programs). The in-depth questions about in-person visits include who visited (e.g., by self, with family, part of tour group, etc), reasons the museums were visited (e.g., recreational and educational, research, etc.), what was done during the visits (e.g., browse, view a specific exhibit, attend a lecture, etc.), sources of information used (e.g., audio information, interactive computer, etc.), outcomes from the visit (e.g., broadened perspectives on life, inspired, encouraged further learning, etc.), ratings of overall satisfaction with the visits, exhibits, descriptive information and oral presentations. The surveys also examined attributes of information obtained from the museum such as their quality, trustworthiness, and so on. A number of questions involved children’s use of museums by type of museum. Remote visit questions involved the type of remote visit to a Web site (e.g., browsing through the Web site; viewed a specific exhibit, collection or display; learned about a specific topic, etc.); purpose of remote visit (e.g., recreational and educational, research, etc.); outcomes from the remote visit for each purpose; ratings of overall satisfaction and specific aspects of the visit, as well as attributes of specific information from the remote visits. Finally, the surveys addressed the value of museums by what users pay in their time and other costs to use the museums. We also asked what users would do to obtain information observed from the museums if the museums were not available and what it would cost them to use alternative sources of information. The paper will present specific results of these surveys.

Keywords: on-line, users, Internet, museums, survey


The on-line information environment has changed dramatically since the earliest on-line systems emerged in the early 1960s. Growth has occurred both in the number of users of on-line information as well as in the number of on-line information resources and providers. The rate of growth in each of these areas increased exponentially with the availability of the public Internet and the World Wide Web. These foundational technological developments created an environment in which almost anyone can ‘publish’ or function as an information provider and have virtually instantaneous access to massive volumes of information.

Current data indicate that over 50 % of U.S. households have access to the Internet. Furthermore, virtually every public library in the U.S. has at least one publicly accessible workstation connected to the Internet. Recent research has shown that many individuals use the Internet/Web as a large library; however, the Web is not a library in many critical ways (Griffiths 1998). Most relevant for this project is the fact that the Web gives people the illusion of comprehensiveness: while it does, indeed, provide access to an enormous amount of information, there is orders of magnitude more information that must be accessed by more traditional means.

Since the availability of the earliest on-line systems, research has been conducted on the users/use, their information needs, and providers/provision of an on-line mode. In particular, research has tended to focus on specific user population segments or the use of specific on-line resources. Other research has investigated the information needs and information seeking practices of specific population segments. All these research efforts focus on specific pieces of the overall universe of people with information needs, the information that can potentially satisfy those needs, and the mechanisms and resources that can provide access to the needed information.

This project, solicited by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), aims to develop a rich and comprehensive understanding of this universe, particularly the on-line information space within it: the people who do use or might potentially use on-line information; their information needs and expectations, information seeking preferences and behaviors; and the information content and service providers who support the needs of these people.

In responding to IMLS’s request for proposals, we developed a conceptual model which we believe illustrates the size and complexity of the universe of users and potential users of on-line information (see Figure 1). While the model reflects hundreds of relevant studies we have worked on, we do not intend it to be final, but rather a starting point from which to characterize this universe. The model is based on two critical components:

Figure 1: Conceptual Model (PDF)

The user component (blue rectangle) includes characteristics of the user population; their needs for information (e.g., a health problem, a school homework assignment, a work-related research need, recreational interest, cultural attraction); and use of various sources of information (e.g., documents, exhibits); providers of these sources (e.g., libraries, museums); and modes of access (e.g., Internet, personal observation). The information component (yellow rectangle), starting from the bottom, includes the communication mechanisms and resources by which the information is accessed, and their attributes; information content attributes; and the outcomes/impact derived by users having the information.

The model shows that the sources, providers, and modes of access possess important attributes (e.g., availability, accessibility, price). The use of sources, providers and modes of access is influenced by several factors, such as user awareness of them, ease of use, and attributes. Amount of use can be estimated as a function of these factors, including user perception of attributes. Information content also has important attributes that are related to meeting the users’ information needs. For example, accuracy and currency are essential to meeting many health-related needs; language is important to various population segments - for people with different native languages, those learning languages, etc. Finally, use of information results in some outcomes (or impact) such as improved student learning, time saved, etc. Outcomes can be related to specific segments of the population. While there are many possible ways of characterizing the information universe, we have found this model to be very useful in our studies of libraries and a range of information sources, providers, and access modes (particularly the Internet).

Museums and libraries have long been sources of recreation, learning and information for personal, family, educational and workplace purposes. However, the Internet, Web and other technologies have become increasingly used sources of information that some believe will largely replace their physical counterparts. Still, some have speculated that the Internet and related technologies will actually enhance and increase museum and library use. There is no solid evidence to support either assertion, particularly considering the wide range in types of museums and libraries.

Both museums and libraries of all types have adapted to the Internet by providing access to information through the Internet, as well as creating and promoting unique information content for users. They also provide access to their services through the Internet. This “National Study of Users and Potential Users of Online Information” has a primary goal to “Conduct a national survey of the information needs of users and potential users of on-line museum and public library information and the Internet.”

This paper presents the first reporting of preliminary analysis of museum usage.


The study involved over 6,000 national household telephone interviews using random digit dialing. The surveys were conducted in 2006 and were limited to adults aged 18 and over, although some information about children’s visits was obtained from the adults. Some questions were common to all interviews, such as interviewee demographics and use of certain Internet services. The remaining questions were organized into four distinct survey clusters:

  1. A survey of museum use was conducted to observe the extent of museum in-person visits, remote visits to museum Web sites, and television viewing of museum exhibits. There are two sources of data: estimates of overall museum use (based on 5,303 interviews), and estimates of details of use (based on 1,038 interviews).
  2. A similar survey was conducted to establish information about public library use (based on 1,693 interviews).
  3. A survey of Internet use was performed to determine the extent of Internet use, details of the purposes for which the Internet was used, and the outcomes of this use (based on 2,020 interviews).
  4. A survey on general information needs, and sources of information used to meet these needs (based on 2,102 interviews). This survey provided a context within which to understand why certain sources are used for different information needs.

All of the surveys relied heavily on a critical incident observation of the last use or visit. The critical incident method allows detailed questions to be asked about a specific incident to yield deeper understanding of what users actually do during a museum visit.


The preliminary results presented below relate to the use, usefulness and value of museums.

Total Museum Use And Trends

Museums clearly are a popular destination for the majority of adults in the U.S. Over 67% of all adults in the U.S. visited a museum in the past year. Adults made a total of 1.0 billion visits, and children aged 3 to 17 years made 97.8 million visits in the past year. Almost two-thirds (63.2%) of adult visits to museums were in-person visits, and just under one third (31.7%) were remote Web visits. Of adults who visited a museum in the past 12 months, a small proportion (6.2%) used remote access exclusively, over half (53.0%) visited exclusively in-person, and the remainder (40.8%) visited in both modalities.

The number of museum visits is trending upwards, especially with remote access. In-person visits seem fairly stable with 25% indicating they visited more often, 23.3% less often and 51% about the same. For remote Web visits, 38.3% indicated they visited more often, 9.8% less often and 52.1% about the same.

There is a clear positive relationship between in-person visits and remote Web visits in that those who visit a museum in-person more frequently also tend to visit remotely more, and vice versa.

The vast majority of adults who visited a museum in the past year did so multiple times. For in-person visits, a total of 11.4% of adults visited once only, 33.6% visited two to five times, 12.1% visited 6-10 times, and 6.6% visited eleven or more times. For Website visits, 5.4% of all adults visited once only, 16% visited two to five times, 5.1% visited 6-10 times and 5.2% visited eleven or more times.

Type Of Museum Visited

Data were collected on type of museum visited based on the museum categories in the American Association of Museums Directory (although some categories were combined). The proportion of adults who visited museums in-person or via museum Web sites in the past 12 months follows.

Museum Types Proportion of Adults Who Visited In-Person or via Museum Websites
Historic house or site 35%
Zoo/aquarium 35%
Art museum 29%
Nature center 28%
Science/technology museum 25%
History museum 24%
Arboretum/botanical garden 24%
Natural history/anthropology museum 21%
Children’s/youth museum 19%
General museum 19%
Some other type of museum 8%

Table 1: The proportion of adults who visited museums in-person or via museum Web sites in the past 12 months

Independent of the use described above, people also indicated that they observed museums and their collections via a variety of television channels (Public Broadcasting television stations, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, History Channel, etc.). The proportion of all adults who viewed museum content via television in the past twelve months follows.

Museum Types Proportion of Adults Who Visited Museum Content via Television in the Past 12 Months
Historic house or site 34%
Zoo/aquarium 34%
Science/technology museum 28%
Natural history/anthropology 28%
History museum 28%
Art museum 23%
Nature center 22%
Arboretum/botanical garden 19%
Children’s/youth museum 12%

Table 2: The proportion of all adults who viewed museum content via television in the past 12 months

Reasons For Museum Visits

People visit museums for variety of reasons. The vast majority of museum visits are for personal, family, informal learning or recreational experiences (93 % of in-person visits and 87% of Web visits). More information on these visits is included below in the next two sections for in-person and Web visits, respectively.

A small proportion of visits are for formal educational purposes, both by students (2% of in-person visits and 5% of Web visits) and by teachers (2% of in-person visits and 6% of Web visits), and for work-related purposes by writers, consultants, etc. (3% of in-person visits and 1% of Web visits).

In-Person Visits To Museums

The majority (68.2%) of in-person museum visits are with family, almost half of which included children under the age of 18, or with friends and colleagues (24.8%). A relatively small but not insignificant proportion of adult visits were alone (9.5%) or with a tour group (8.2%).

Visits that included children account for 29.5% of all visits, with an average of 3 children per visit. Almost two-thirds (63.1%) of these visits included 1 or 2 children, one-third (30.0%) included 3-5 children, and the remainder (6.9%) involved more than 5 children (with a maximum number reported of 80).

People engaged in a variety of activities during their last visit to a museum:

Activities Proportion of Visits
Browsed on own or with others 95.8%
Visited a specific exhibit, collection or display 61.6%
Learned about a specific topic 59.9%
Used a gift shop 54.1%
Spoke to museum staff about exhibits/collections 46.6%
Used restaurant/coffee shop 37.9%
Participated in a tour of the museum 30.2%
Purchased a book for later study 13.4%
Attended a lecture or class 12.9%

Table 3: Proportion of people who engaged in activities during their last visit to a museum

During their last visit, people used a variety of information sources while in the museum:

Information Source Proportion of Visits
Written information about and near items(labels, explanatory panels, etc) 90.2%
Audio information about items 48.4%
Exhibit catalog, guide to collection, etc. 40,7%
Film showing 35.6%
Museum publications (magazine, annual report, member information, etc.) 27.7%
Interactive computer in exhibit area 25.2%
Museum website 9.8%
Interactive computer in a study area 5.5%
Museum library 5.0%

Table 4: Proportion of visits information sources used while in the museum

Web Visits To Museums

Adults who visit museums via the Web engage in a variety of activities:

Activities Proportion of Visits
Browse the website 82.8%
View a specific exhibit, collection or display 66.7%
Learn about a specific topic 65.6%
Listen to or view a lecture of class 4.3%
Order a book for later use 4.3%
Complete a class assignment 3.2%
Order a gift (other than a book) 2.2%

Table 5: Activities adult visitors engage in via Web visits

This pattern of use is very similar to the in-person visits.

Outcomes Of Museum Visits

The outcomes of museum visits vary considerably by the purposes for which museums are used: personal/family recreation/entertainment; education both as student or teacher; and work-related. As shown earlier, the vast majority of adult museum visits are for personal or family informal learning and recreation. Key outcomes of museum visits include the following.

Outcomes In-person visits Web visits
Helped learn something new 87% 86%
Encouraged further learning 76% 81%
Broadened perspective 63% 51%
Inspired visitor 60% 61%
Led to other interests 42% 49%
Resulted in a new way of thinking 37% 29%

Table 6: Key outcomes of museum visits

These outcomes demonstrate the very strong role museums have in learning.

There are other outcomes of museum visits.

Further outcomes In-person visits Web visits
Talked about or recommended the experience to others 86% 68%
Planned another museum visits 39% 41%
Looked for more information from another source 39% 48%

Table 7: Further outcomes of museum visits

On the whole, museum visitors indicate that their needs are met.

Further outcomes In-person visits Web visits
General interest in the museum or its contents 89% 83%
A specific museum exhibit or display 37% 59%
Joint experience with family or friends 79% 41%

Table 8: Needs met through in-person or Web visits

It is clear from the above results that the shared experience of in-person museum visits is important to those who visit in-person, and to a much lesser degree to Web visitors. On the other hand, it would appear that Web visitors more often have something specific in mind when they visit, as opposed to those who are visiting museums in-person. Furthermore, all museum visits for formal education or workplace purposes resulted in people finding some or all of what they were seeking.

Ratings Of Museum Experiences

Visitors were asked to rate their satisfaction with their last museum experience. The scale used was a five-point scale with 1 representing an experience less satisfying than they expected and 5 representing a fully satisfying experience. Overall, people were very satisfied with their museum experiences - with in-person visits rated on average very slightly higher (4.37) than on-line visits (4.04).

Visitors were also asked to rate various aspects of museums on a five-point scale with 1 representing the worst rating and 5 representing the best rating. In all cases the in-person visits resulted in higher average ratings.

Aspects of Museums In-person visit rating Web visit rating
Exhibits 4.35 3.84
Oral or audio presentations describing displays or items 4.30 3.69
Quality of descriptive information about displays or items 4.39 3.95
Trustworthiness of the displays or exhibits 4.62 4.55

Table 9: Rating of various aspects of museums, in-person and Web visits

It is clear that museums are considered trusted sources, with ratings of trust very similar for both in-person and Web visits.

Value of Museums

Those who use museums invest their time, travel expenses, etc. to visit and spend time engaged with museum exhibits, collections, programs, etc. This individual investment is a discretionary one and can be considered an indication of the value that visitors place on museums. In-person visitors to museums spend an average of 2.2 hours traveling to and from the museum and 2.9 hours in the museum. They also spend a per-visit average of $21.50 in driving, $2.00 for parking, $6.90 for transportation and $7.80 for entrance fees. Thus, the total visitor investment in museums is 5.1 hours plus $38.20 per visit. Web visitors to museums invest much less, with an average of 0.8 hours per visit.

Visitors were asked, for their last visit, what they would have done if the museums had not been available. Some indicated they would not have bothered to use another source (29.4% of in-person visits, 9.7% of Web visits). Others indicated that they needed the information or experience but did not know where they would go to find it (10.5% of in-person visits, 7.5% of Web visits). Still others indicated that they would use another source (60.1% of in-person visits, 82.8% of Web visits).

The cost to use alternative sources can also provide an indicator of value to the visitor. For 60.1 % of the in-person visits, people actually were willing to pay 3.7 hours and $27.50 per visit more than known alternatives to visit the museums themselves. For 82.8 % of the Web visits, the convenience of the Web saved them 4 hours and $107.20 per visit.


It is clear that museums are used by the majority of the adult U.S. population, with 67 % or 157 million adults visiting a museum in the past year. These adults account for 1 billion museum visits per year in-person and through the Web. Children aged 3-17 account for an additional 97.8 million visits. People visit museums for a variety of reasons and they derive a variety of positive outcomes. The opportunity to experience the museum, exhibits, collections and programs with family and friends is a particularly important feature. The value to adult visitors in terms of time spent and time saved through the use of museums in the past year is in excess of 4.9 billion hours plus $54.6 billion.


Griffiths, J.M. (1998). Why the Web is not a library. In The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the Twenty-first Century, eds. B. L. Hawkins and P. Battin, pp. 229-246. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 1998.

Cite as:

Griffiths, J.M., et al., The Use, Usefulness and Value of Museums in the U.S, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note