Dr. Laura M. Crispin and Molly I. Beck, researchers affiliated with University of Arkansas’ National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab, have released a working paper that studies museum attendance in youth.  Using five nationally representative surveys, the authors study children in kindergarten through 12th grade to determine who attends museums and how often.  They find that museum attendance rates vary from 30% (in the previous month) to 70% (in the previous year), and that there are significant differences in attendance rates by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, gender, and location.

Dr. Laura M. Crispin is an Associate Professor of Economics at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA and an affiliated researcher with the UofA NEA Research Lab.

Molly I. Beck is a Doctoral Fellow and Research Assistant in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

“We began this project because I was working with several longitudinal datasets that gathered data from children and parents about museum-going behavior.  Thus far, there is no large-scale study of children and museum attendance using these types of datasets.  In the literature, all of the research on museum attendance is focused on specific museums, so it seemed important to ask two simple, yet critical and unanswered questions:  who attends museums? and how often?” said Crispin.

Using multiple cohorts within each dataset, and comparing across datasets, Crispin and Beck are able to provide a comprehensive descriptive analysis of museum attendance for children from K – 12th grade.  They find that socioeconomically disadvantaged students are the least likely to attend museums, regardless of location.  They find that students who are one standard deviation below the mean in socioeconomic status are as much as 17 percentage points less likely to attend museums, relative to their peers.  Similarly, girls and minority students are also less likely to attend museums than their peers.

The difference in attendance by socioeconomic status is not entirely unexpected. Descriptive analyses of adults in the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts finds a strong link between socioeconomic status and arts attendance. “While we expected that socioeconomic status and demographic characteristics would be strongly correlated with museum attendance for children, we did not expect such large magnitudes, especially for socioeconomic status.  We were also interested to find such large differences by location, where rural students are between 6 and 20 percentage points less likely to attend museums relative to those in urban areas.  These results show that policies targeted towards the specific sub-groups would be effective and necessary to increase access and engagement with museums,” Crispin explains.

Crispin and Beck are able to explore attendance at different types of museums as well, specifically art museums and science museums.  They find that socioeconomic and racial disadvantages persist by museum type.  However, the results by gender are particularly interesting.  For art museum attendance, females are more likely to attend than males, by up to 5 percentage points.  For science museum attendance, they see a gender gap in the late 1980s, where females were about 8 percentage points less likely to attend science museums than males.  However, by 2009, they find that females are 5 percentage points more likely to attend science museums than males.

Another interesting difference in type of museum visited is that more students reported visiting science museums rather than art museums. This could be because of the recent focus on STEM or because science museums are, generally, more interactive. “For example, while there could be exhibits in a science museum where children can work with objects to explore physics, art museums generally frown on handling the pieces,” Beck explains. Additionally, schools may find it easier to incorporate visits to science museums into their school- or grade-wide curriculum.  “We would like to explore this difference in future research to understand why students attend one type versus another,” Crispin says.

Their finding that 75% of students report having visited a museum at some point in their youth or adolescence implies that nearly 25% of students have not had that opportunity. With significant differences by race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and location, if we believe that students benefit from visiting museums, these differences should concern policymakers, school leaders, and researchers alike. Following this paper, Crispin and Beck plan to pursue similar analysis for young adults ages 18 to 26 to test whether these findings hold into early adulthood.  They also plan to research the effect of museum attendance in youth on contemporaneous and later educational outcomes as well as labor market outcomes.


Dr. Laura Crispin is an Assistant Professor of Economics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Molly Beck M.P.A. is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow and Graduate Research Assistant in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.