Virtual Issues

It’s Not Just for the Children: On Engaging Culturally Diverse Families at Museums

Pamela Maldonado & Cecilia Nguyen

Pamela Maldonado (she, her, hers) is the BurkeMobile Program Manager at the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture in Seattle, Washington, USA. As an outreach educator, she designs and facilitates programs for schools and communities across the state. Pamela is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Cecilia Nguyen (she, her, hers) is Senior Exhibit Developer at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon, USA. She leads research and development for exhibitions and multimedia experiences. Cecilia is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

As museum practitioners in the United States who develop and deliver programming and exhibits to museum audiences, our jobs require that we be highly aware of the people our institutions serve. We seek to create experiences sparking interest, pleasure, and motivation that audiences find personally relevant to their lives and cultures. And, as people of color with bicultural backgrounds, we have identities that give us perspectives that are especially relevant to creating content for culturally diverse audiences.

We are sometimes painfully aware of who our museums don’t serve. Our institutions were founded to reflect and uphold the dominant culture—the Burke Museum in 1885 and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in 1944. Like many other institutions, these museums are undergoing massive shifts in understanding their audiences, why their exhibits and programming exclude, alienate, or even harm certain audiences, and how to carry out their missions of serving the public more equitably.

In this paper, we review Curator: The Museum Journal’s archives and research articles related to identity. We investigated if and how the museum literature addresses inclusion and culturally diverse families. We did this because issues of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are in the foreground of how we serve our audiences, the majority of which are children and families. We explore both foundational literature and new research to support museum professionals, especially those who are early in their careers.

Concerning families specifically, a search for abstracts from the last five years (January 2015–June 2020) of Curator’s archive yields ten articles. From the previous five years (2010–2014), we found another six articles. These 16 articles make up about 2% of roughly 480 articles and other published pieces during those years. This very narrow search may not be an accurate portrayal of how much Curator articles address family-related topics but does indicate that there is limited discussion in the journal focused on families, let alone families of underrepresented cultural identities. Compared to the prevalence of family participation in museums (Borun, 2002; Dierking, n.d.; COVES, 2019), it appears there is a gap in the literature. Curator is not the only journal related to museum studies, of course, and other journals, such as Visitor Studies and the Journal of Museum Education, also provide scholarship on this topic.

Families & Museums

According to the learning researchers Dierking and Falk (Dierking, n.d.), family groups make up about 60% of museum visitors in the United States. The Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies (COVES) project reported in 2019 an even larger majority. In a visitor study conducted from 2018–2019 at 21 North American museums of all sizes, 79% out of over 17,500 survey respondents were visiting in groups with children (COVES, 2019). These studies demonstrate clearly how important family audiences are to museums, and the importance of considering their needs when developing and designing exhibits, wayfinding, and providing programs.

Multiple factors influence family learning in museums. Across institutions, the studies we found outlined evidence for characteristics of museum experiences that support family engagement. The seminal 1990s study published in Curator by the Philadelphia-Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC) established seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits (Borun et al., 1997). Seven years later, the USS Constitution Museum in Massachusetts, USA began studying these characteristics and expanded the list to nine items. According to this expanded list, family-friendly exhibits are: multi-user, multimodal, multi-sided, encouraging conversation, multi-outcome, authentic and distinctive, relevant, accessible, and feature fun and play (USS Constitution Museum, 2020).

The United States’ demographics will change dramatically in the upcoming decades, and it is projected that the majority of children will be non-white. By 2050, “African Americans, Latinos (of any race), Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and others, including those who identify as multiracial—will collectively become the new majority in the United States” (Farrell, Medvedeva, Cultural Policy Center & NORC, 2010, p. 9). There are projections that there will not be a “single racial or ethnic majority” by 2055 (Cohn & Caumont, 2016). As the museum field considers its future, there needs to be a consideration of historic and current trends in museum visitorship, and how to serve non-white communities that within our lifetimes will make up the majority of the country’s population and potential museum visitors. Shifts in the United States’ demographics are similar to those experienced in other countries and regions globally due to migration (United Nations, 2019).

Changing demographics provide museums the compelling opportunity to ensure that culturally diverse families will see them as welcoming places. However, there have been and continue to be barriers for people to enter and participate in museums (Farrell, Medvedeva, Cultural Policy Center & NORC, 2010, p. 13; Dawson, 2014), which may be structural or intangible. According to Farrell, Medvedeva, Cultural Policy Center, and NORC’s analysis, structural barriers can include museum policies and systems, geographic location, the makeup of the staff hired, and the cost of admission. Intangible barriers could be an individual’s perceptions that certain spaces are not for them and having negative emotions about the type of institution.

Diverse Families & Museums

The museum field has an established literature and conducts evaluation focused on family audiences. Curator published a bibliographic review compiled by Borun, Cleghorn, and Garfield (1995) that provides an earlier overview of family learning and how it might translate to museums, and annotates the foundational research on this topic. In 2012, Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson published a Curator article that outlines the research that has since been conducted.

Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson’s (2012) high-level analysis of the literature found that families learn together and from each other, and their learning cannot be separated from their social and cultural context (Vygotsky 1978 & Wersch 1985 as cited by Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson, 2012; Ji, Anderson, Wu & Kang, 2014). Family members’ socio-cultural identities can be defined through their “language, values, ideologies, and social norms” (Brooker 2003 & Rogoff 1990 as cited by Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson, 2012). Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson assert that if visitors’ socio-cultural backgrounds are studied and considered, then the museum field would better understand how visitors currently or potentially will experience a museum.

However, research into family learning in informal environments has mostly considered and studied Anglo perspectives at Anglo institutions (Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson, 2012; Ji, Anderson, Wu & Kang, 2014). The first two decades of the 21st century found museum researchers and professionals advocating for a better understanding of the museum experiences of families with different cultural identities. Still the Curator archives contained examples of research that were primarily from Anglo perspectives, with few examples of studies on culturally diverse families in museums in other countries. Research from other journals focused on museums or STEM informal learning for audiences that are of the non-dominant culture provide more examples.

Dawson’s (2014) article in Science Education offers an example of an inclusive approach to family learning research, which can be instructive for professionals and researchers alike. Dawson conducted a study in London with families and social groups of four different low-income, ethnic minorities, which sought to understand the families’ perceptions and experiences at multiple science centers and science museums. The motivation for this study was the recognition that previous research on participation in informal science education usually focused on people that are already participating—typically middle class, white, and are geographically able to visit. Dawson’s study found that participants from minority groups experienced these institutions in ways that confirmed the perceptions and feelings they had before entering—that the spaces were not socially welcoming and were exclusionary. Prior to their visits, Dawson’s participants said that they didn’t think the science centers were places for them or they weren’t interested in going. One participant said that they weren’t going to see people like them at the science centers, and others said that they had anxieties around how to behave in the spaces. During their visits, participants found that their concerns and expectations were accurate. Many of the centers visited only used English and the participants in Dawson’s study said that this impeded their understanding of content and ability to navigate. All of these factors influence an individual’s experience of the museum visit.

The literature in the archive suggests a clear need for museums to do better at addressing and representing culturally diverse families. At the beginning of the 21st century, evidence-based solutions and recommendations began to appear. The exploratory study by the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution, “Increasing Museum Visitation by Underrepresented Audiences” (2001) identified three types of strategies that museums employ to increase audience diversity: adapt exhibits and public programs to appeal to those communities; modify the setting where programs take place; and better promote programs.

That paper noted inclusion strategies for general audiences but did not distinguish specific needs of family audiences. According to an article by Stein, Garibay, and Wilson (2008) in Museums and Social Issues, incorporating intergenerational participation is especially important when designing museum programs for immigrant and underrepresented communities because their cultures are often family oriented. Although younger generations might be able to navigate English, the dominant language in the United States, other generations in the family group might not. If the facilitation, wayfinding, and interpretation is in a language they don’t understand, they can’t fully participate. Language plays a large role in being able to participate and navigate a space, as well as in making people feel welcome and included.

Additional studies further illustrate the importance of language for families. The Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI) project, funded by the US National Science Foundation, sought to understand bilingual exhibit practices and Spanish-speaking visitors’ perceptions of them (Yalowitz, Garibay, Renner & Plaza, 2013). In a guest post on the Museum 2.0 blog, Yalowitz (2014) listed three observations from this research: code-switching (the ability to change between languages and cultures), facilitation, and emotional reaction. The study found that in bilingual groups, the family members were able to switch between English and Spanish, as well as between their personal cultures and the dominant culture. The study also found that the adults were more likely to read Spanish labels and then felt confident to facilitate interactions with their younger family members. Some members of the family groups had an emotional reaction to seeing the bilingual interpretation, stating that they enjoyed the experience more and it improved their perception of the institution.

Considering this foundational research on family learning, more recent studies on this topic, and our own experience as museum practitioners, we emphasize that learning is tied to a person’s identity and cannot be separated from the individual, how they perceive the world around them, and how they process information. Family members learn and develop their cultural identity from each other. This is a compelling reason for museums of all kinds to work on making experiences inclusive for families of diverse identities.

Look Inward & Reach Out

There is no doubt that increasing diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) has become a priority for cultural institutions in 2020, and Curator is no stranger to the urgency swelling throughout the field, particularly in the last few years. The formation of the Writing Scholars Workshop, which produced this Virtual Issue, is just one example of the journal’s efforts. Case studies, critiques, and primary research in Curator have addressed systemic racism, inclusion for people with disabilities, cultural accessibility and inclusion, community engagement, and the social justice responsibility of museums, to name just a few topics.

Sustainable change towards DEAI requires more than evolving how public audiences perceive and engage with museum experiences. In 2019, the journal published “The Empathetic Museum: A New Institutional Journey,” (Jennings et al.), which described how some museums have approached this work holistically. The framework, called the Maturity Model, outlines five characteristics of an empathetic museum (civic vision, institutional body language, community resonance, timeliness and sustainability, and performance measures) and progressive steps that institutions can take to build empathetic practices. The authors were careful to point out that the Model is a tool that organizations may use to assess their journeys, but it is not intended to define final outcomes. The Model offers a way to reflect on and transform an institution’s policies, norms, and practices.

There are a number of articles published from 2015–2019 in Curator that described what museums were doing to make experiences more equitable, accessible, and inclusive for culturally diverse families. Some are mentioned here and others in the recommended reading list. For example, in “Museum Makers: Family Explorations of Data Science through Making and Exhibit Design,” Letourneau and colleagues (2020), discussed a study in which the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York, USA engaged families from the museum’s immediate neighborhood to support young children’s development of math reasoning skills through hands-on data science. The authors described the neighborhood as having high percentages of residents born outside the United States (almost two-thirds), and 21% of households were people experiencing poverty. The program sought to make the experience inclusive, engaging, and accessible for multilingual and multicultural families, and it was developed in line with prior research on family learning in informal learning spaces relevant to math and facilitation strategies.

Collective Change

In this Virtual Issue, we share some articles and case studies to inspire museum scholars and practitioners to engage culturally diverse families. The evidence from these studies suggests the shifts in perspective and frameworks of understanding that are needed to bring about deep and sustainable change. But these publications also suggest success is feasible if cultural institutions and stakeholders are committed to their missions and connected to their communities.

Grassroots efforts in the previous decade (2010–2020) have yielded industry-wide groups and communities of practice such as The Empathetic Museum, Museum as Site for Social (MASS) Action, and Museums & Race: Transformation and Justice. Institutional efforts have also gained momentum, including Facing Change, an American Alliance of Museums initiative; Museums for All, a cooperative initiative of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institution of Museum and Library Services (USA); professional development programs at the Science Museum Minnesota’s IDEAL Center; and the Cultural Competence Learning Institute (CCLI), a collaboration between the Association of Children’s Museums, Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, the Association of Science-Technology Centers, and The Garibay Group. CCLI has released a new report, CCLI National Landscape Study: The State of DEAI Practices in Museums (Garibay & Olson, 2020), on a large-scale survey of cultural institutions of all types and sizes. We expect many in the United States will make this report a touchstone to inform equity-related initiatives.

At this writing, there are multiple free resources that offer museum practitioners useful tools, reading lists, and active forums for dialogue to help transform museums into inclusive, accessible, and equitable institutions in both inward- and public-facing ways (including resources from the organizations listed above). For example, resources for practices around family inclusivity in exhibits and programs include Middleton’s (2014) “Family-Inclusive Language” chart, which gives recommendations on terms to use and avoid; The REVEAL Responsive Museum Facilitation Guide (Andanen, Rubin, Pattison, Gontan, & Bromley, 2017) which focuses on engaging families at interactive exhibits; and Engage Families: A Guide to Family Engagement in Exhibits and Programs (USS Constitution Museum, 2020), which focuses on support for families including those from culturally rich backgrounds.


The articles and resources described above offer the hope and power of collective action to create more equitable impacts for museums and the families they serve. From our positions in institutions that were created for the dominant white and western European culture, we are working hard to make these spaces more welcoming for culturally diverse families that might not yet see themselves reflected in those spaces. With the historic events of 2020, systemic inequities have been laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued police persecution of Black Americans. Cultural institutions have an opportunity to increase and improve accessibility and inclusion for all families in meaningful, relevant, and potentially healing ways.

Recommended Reading from the Curator Archive

Akiva, T., Schunn, C.D. & Louw, M. (2017). What Drives Attendance at Informal Learning Activities? A Study of Two Art Programs. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 351–364.

Deng, L. (2017). Equity of Access to Cultural Heritage: Museum Experience as a Facilitator of Learning and Socialization in Children with Autism. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 411–426.

Golden, T. & Walsh, L. (2013). Play For All at Chicago Children’s Museum: A History and Overview. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56: 337–347.

Kahn, D. M. (1994). Diversity and the Museum of London. Curator: The Museum Journal, 37: 240–250.

Kopke, J. (2011). The Denver Community Museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 54: 399–402.

Kulik, T. K. & Fletcher, T. S. (2016). Considering the Museum Experience of Children with Autism. Curator: The Museum Journal, 59: 27–38.

Langa, L. A., Monaco, P., Subramaniam, M., Jaeger, P. T., Shanahan, K. & Ziebarth, B. (2013). Improving the Museum Experiences of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Their Families: An Exploratory Examination of Their Motivations and Needs and Using Web‐based Resources to Meet Them. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56: 323–335.

Lee, T. S.‐C. (2020). Curriculum Based Interactive Exhibition Design and Family’s Learning Experiences: A Case Study of the Children’s Art Museum in Taipei. Curator: The Museum Journal, 63: 83–98.


Andanen, E., Rubin, A., Pattison, S., Gontan, I. & Bromley, C. (2017). REVEAL Responsive Museum Facilitation: A Video-Based Reflection Guide for Engaging Families at Interactive Exhibits. Portland, OR: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Borun, M. (2002). Object-based Learning and Family Groups in Perspectives on Object-centered Learning in Museums, edited by Scott Paris. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Borun, M., Cleghom, A. & Garfield, C. (1995). Family Learning in Museums: A Bibliographic Review. Curator: The Museum Journal, 38: 262–270.

Borun, M., Chambers, M. B., Dritsas, J. & Johnson, J. I. (1997). Enhancing Family Learning Through Exhibits. Curator: The Museum Journal, 40: 279–295.

Briseño‐Garzón, A. & Anderson, D. (2012). “My Child is Your Child”: Family Behavior in a Mexican Science Museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55: 179–201.

Cohn, D. & Caumont, A. (2016, March 31). “10 demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world in 2016.”

COVES (Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies). (2019). Understanding Our Visitors: Multi-Institutional Museum Study July 2018 – July 2019.

Dawson, E. (2014). “Not Designed for Us”: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low‐Income, Minority Ethnic Groups. Science Education, 98: 981–1008.

Dierking, L., Kiihne, R., Rand, A., & Solvay, M. (2006). Laughing & Learning Together: Family Learning Research Becomes Practice at the USS Constitution Museum. History News, 61(3): 12–15.

Dierking, L. (n.d.). Why is Family Learning Important?

Farrell, B., Medvedeva, M., Cultural Policy Center & NORC. (2010). Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. Washington, DC: The AAM Press.

Garibay, C. & Olson, J. M. (2020). CCLI National Landscape Study: The State of DEAI Practices in Museums. Technical report.

Jennings, G., Cullen, J., Bryant, J., Bryant‐Greenwell, K., Mann, S., Hove, C. & Zepeda, N. (2019). The Empathetic Museum: A New Institutional Identity. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62: 505–526.

Ji, J., Anderson, D., Wu, X. & Kang, C. (2014). Chinese Family Groups’ Museum Visit Motivations: A Comparative Study of Beijing and Vancouver. Curator: The Museum Journal, 57: 81–96.

Letourneau, S.M., Liu, C.J., Donnelly, K., Meza, D., Uzzo, S. and Culp, K.M. (2020), Museum Makers: Family Explorations of Data Science through Making and Exhibit Design. Curator: The Museum Journal, 63: 131–145.

Middleton, M. (2014). Including the 21st Century Family. Incluseum.

Yalowitz, S. (2014, Wednesday, March 12). The truth about bilingual interpretation: Guest Post by Steve Yalowitz. Museum 2.0 Blog.

Smithsonian Institution. (2001). Increasing Museum Visitation by Under Represented Audiences: An Exploratory Study of Art Museum Practices.

Stein, J., Garibay, C., & Wilson, K. (2008). Engaging Immigrant Audiences in Museums. Museums & Social Issues, 3(2): 179–196.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. (2019). World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights. ST/ESA/SER.A/423.

USS Constitution Museum. (2020). Engage Families.

Yalowitz, S., Garibay, C., Renner, N., & Plaza, C. (2013). Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative: Institutional and Intergenerational Experiences with Bilingual Exhibitions.

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