Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

Written by Marianna Adams, Audience Focus, with Elizabeth Margulies, Museum of Modern Art

Cross-posted from

All three families scheduled for last week had to cancel or reschedule so it gave me some time to think and have some great conversations with museum educators around the country. What emerged as a theme for me this week was thinking about challenges to facilitating exciting, authentic co-participation in family experiences. I’ve invited Elizabeth Margulies, Director, Family Programs and Initiatives, at MoMA to chime in as she has some valuable reflections to share.

MoMA 1

Since 2004, the USS Constitution Museum has been actively involved in experimenting with and evaluating techniques that foster family engagement. Currently their IMLS-funded project “Engage Families” seeks to identify characteristics of family programming that result in active intergenerational engagement, enjoyment, and learning in museums and libraries. To assist that effort, I implemented an online survey of museum and library professionals around the country in November 2013. Two key findings emerged that will be the focus of this post: 1) professionals value and want to create fun, authentic, opportunities for visitors of mixed ages and interests to co-participate and learn together; 2) accomplishing this comes with many challenges. We want to address two frequently cited challenges here.

1. It’s Really About What You Value

MoMA 3The most frequently cited barrier to achieving their vision for engaging family programs in the USSCM study was lack of resources – specifically time, money, space, and/or staff. Interestingly, whenever I ask museum professionals what prevents them from doing anything this is often the first response. For me, these resources will always be in limited supply, therefore, they become expressions of what we value. For example, we might say that regular exercise is important, but unless we really value it, we will not juggle our personal budgets and complex schedules around to get to the gym or that yoga class.

MoMA is proactively addressing how family programs are perceived and value within the organization by engaging in a cross-departmental dialogue.

As Elizabeth Margulies explains:

Retail, Publications, and Education began meeting over a year ago to see how we might build on the success of some publications written by Education and developed by Retail. In our conversations we realized that we could use some help defining what we all wanted and we hired an outside consultant, Stephen Gass of The Gass Company to work with us. The goal is to articulate the personality and voice of the programs, experiences, and products MoMA creates for kids and families along with the values that drive our decisions. It’s been gratifying to find that everyone thinks this is a worthwhile effort. We wouldn’t have known how important everyone felt the child/family audience was if we didn’t bring them all together to discuss it.

If lack of resources tends to be your main reason as to why you don’t have the kind of family experiences you say you want, then this is where your work has to start.

What are ways that you have been able to shift the culture of your organization towards a more family-friendly position?

2. But Parents Won’t or Don’t Want to Participate!

Museum and library practitioners express concern and even frustration at not being able to get the adults to engage or to engage “properly.” This always raises the question “What is proper?” When I have felt like being the “bad” grandparent and check my phone, it’s mostly because I’m bored. Either I’ve been separated from my wonderful granddaughters or what we are being asked to do is uninspired and/or disconnected from what’s important in the artwork.

It always comes back to intention. If we want co-participation across generations then everything we do has to support that intention. I’ve heard from that when they clearly and consistently communicate the expectation that adult caregivers participate, they have better engagement within the groups.

Certainly we want families to feel comfortable doing what they feel is best. There always needs to be room for groups to engage as much or as little as they want. As the educators at MoMA and the American Museum of Natural History advise, if we communicate clear intentions early and often then we will see more co-participation and enjoyment. More importantly, if what we are asking groups to do is compelling then there will be more engagement. Studies suggest that some parents want to hand over the experience to the program facilitator. We always have to graciously accept that some people don’t want the experience we’ve provided. In that case, if we are true to our intentions they will self-select other programs that better suit their needs. It’s also why a variety of youth and family programs is advisable.

MoMA Education_2012_SMALLBut enough about the parents/caregivers. I want to focus more on the responsibility of the museum educators who deliver experiences designed to encourage co-participation and engagement. Some museums are able to hire experienced museum educators for their family programs, giving greater consistency and depth to the experiences. For many museums, family programs seem to be shuffled off to the youngest, least experienced facilitators who are given almost no mentoring on how to engage intergenerational audiences effectively.

In the UK Kids in Museums is “compiled entirely from visitors’ comments. It’s a practical and powerful tool to encourage and support museums, galleries, and historic houses around the country” to more successfully engage family audiences. For example, a few points from their Manifesto speak to the importance of the educator’s approach:

  • Be positive and do away with the word ‘No’. Tell visitors what they can do at the door, don’t pin up a list of things they can’t.
  • Share storieswith each other. Listen. Families can be experts too.
  • Don’t say ssshhhush! If kids are being noisy, ask yourself ‘Why?’ Is it because they’re excited? Great! Then capture that excitement. Is it because they’re bored? Then give them something meaningful to do.
  • Say ‘Please touch!’as often as you can. Everyone finds real objects awesome. Direct kids to things that can be handled, teach respect and explain why others can’t.
  • Give a hand to grown-upsas well as children. Sometimes it isn’t the kids who are shy – parents need your support too. Produce guides, trails and activities so everyone can join in.
  • Be aware of different families’ needs.Use your imagination with signs, symbols, and words understood by all. Design everything you offer to be equally accessible to disabled and non-disabled visitors alike.

The educators for MoMA’s family programs have developed a range of guidelines and self-evaluation tools to support their family educators. Most importantly, family program facilitators are asked to:

Reevaluate. After your program, think about why families might not have participated as you hoped. Possible reasons:

  • Adults didn’t know they were expected to participate;
  • Adults weren’t asked to participate or work with their child until too late in the program;
  • Instructions weren’t clear about what parents were supposed to do, or the activity, discussion was too difficult (even for the adults);
  • The gallery has too many distractions or logistically doesn’t give families enough room to do what you’ve asked;
  • There is a language barrier;
  • Families couldn’t hear you.


What strategies do you use to facilitate greater co-participation within and across family groups?


Towards a More Mindful Practice

Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Evaluation Can Be Fun

*     *     *     *     *


AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.

moma Elizabeth Margulies - HeadshotELIZABETH MARGULIES, Director, Family Programs and Initiatives, Department of Education, joined The Museum of Modern Art in 1999. Elizabeth designs, develops and oversees MoMA’s wide array of Family Programs and resources including gallery talks, workshops, artist talks, film programs, digital projects, activity cards, games, audio guides and the Museum’s interactive space, MoMA Art Lab. She collaborates with MoMA Retail and Publications, on children’s books and products, and in 2010 with Cari Frisch, co-authored, Make Art, Make Mistakes: A Creativity Sketchbook. In 2012, she collaborated with colleagues in Education, the Museum’s Digital Media and Graphic Design Departments, and Rendor Monkey, to launch MoMA Art Lab, an app for the iPad. The app won a 2013 Webby Award in the Education & Reference (Handheld Devices) category, and a Parent’s Choice Silver Honor for app design. Before coming to MoMA, Elizabeth worked in theatrical and television production. She holds a B.S. in Theater from Skidmore and a Master’s of Education from Bank Street College of Education. Elizabeth has taught in both public and private schools in New York.


11 thoughts on “Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums”

  1. I think these are great insights to really creating intergenerational programs – and much of what is discussed is not necessarily cost prohibitive. One other item I would like to add to the list is to make the setting physically accessible and comfortable for both children and adults. Some parents and many grandparents cannot easily work on the floor easily. Think about how to design spaces so it works for both smaller hands and older hands. It is another way to explicitly invite everyone to participate.

    1. Lynn,
      You have a good point. Sitting on the floor is not something everyone wants or is able to do. I have to continually remind myself about Maslow’s hierarchy and to think first about the physical needs before asking people to launch into deeper thought and discovery.

  2. With support from the IMLS, the Denver Art Museum recently completed a two-year study of how to better serve families with young children (ages 3-5, but it applies equally to children of all ages.) We found that focusing on parents’ needs and desires was a way to make the experience work for the whole family. And by intentionally developing in-gallery experiences that appeal to all ages the DAM makes it possible for families to have deeply engaging experiences without a huge investment of staff resources (other than the time spent designing and producing them). Spatial resources are another story; families are (and have long been) a priority so the DAM has devoted significant amounts of space to family interactives spread throughout the museum. If you’d like to have a look at this report go to and choose Kids and Their Grownups: New Insights on Developing Family Experiences for the Whole Family.

    1. Yes, Daryl, I know of this study and it’s an important addition to the field. Kudos to the DAM for sharing their findings with everyone.

  3. Reblogged this on Brain Popcorn and commented:
    We’re working on rubrics for 2015 planning already, and this is a great reminder to think about not only what the goals of your programming are, but what they look like in action.

  4. I think that one of the things that can help with the issue of family involvement is the design of the exhibition space itself – is it designed to encourage multi-generational interaction? In the same issue of Exhibitionist where the USS Constitution wrote about itsfamily-oriented programming, Minda Borun and Suzanne Gaskins wrote about the physical design of spaces to engage multigenerational groups, as well as culturally different family groups. You can find these articles online at by clicking on Exhibitionist Archives and then going to the Spring 2008 issue, Enriching the Visitor Experience for Families and Kids. A number of other articles on the way in which design shapes behavior can be found in the current issue of Exhibitionist (Spring 2014), Intentionally Designed Spaces.

    1. Gretchen,
      Thanks for this link. Is this part of PISEC work that Minda did or an evolution of that ground-breaking work? The USSCM is using that framework for exhibitions as a starting point for developing a similar framework for family/intergenerational programs. Their team is doing some great action research this summer around that framework.

  5. I must say that I’m surprised that after some digging I can find no reference to anticipating the needs of a family with a child (or children) or adults with disabilities. Surely people with disabilities have been encountered by those involved. People with developmental disabilities and those who are neurologically atypical come in families too and their needs should be part of this discussion.

    Cultural Access New England recently hosted a workshop on welcoming people on the autism spectrum and next month we will hose 2 round table conversations in Boston for those who want to take the conversation further.

    Follow-up to the discussions of the last CANE workshop, “Creating a Welcoming Space for Visitors Who Are on the Autism Spectrum”. Continuing the small group conversation by asking questions, sharing program ideas, and exploring resources that make your cultural institution more accessible for visitors who are on the autism spectrum. More details will follow soon.

    September 15, 2014, 4-5pm – Performance/Theater based discussion at Wheelock Family Theatre

    September 18, 2014, 4-5pm – Museum/Exhibition based discussion at Museum of Fine Arts

    More information at

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