Museums and Inclusion: Understanding Visitors’ Sense of Belonging in Science and Natural History Museums

September 1st, 2020 - August 31st, 2022 | PROJECT

While museums strive to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible to all visitors, data from many institutions shows that audiences are still disproportionately white, well-educated, and more affluent than the average local population. One contributing factor to the lack of progress is that staff often create programs that work to create inclusivity from their own perspective, rather than grounding the work in a broader vision of the museum experience. This project will allow for a deeper exploration of how visitors, particularly those from groups that visit less frequently, experience a museum visit, and how their sense of belonging is supported or eroded during their visit. The team believes this sense is built up or taken away through specific moments of engagement or alienation and will explore these moments that matter through the work. Through intensive work at one museum, and additional work at three other museums, the project will look for themes and insights that can help all museums to create more positive moments that matter for all audiences. Specifically, the project will result in a) insights for museums in supporting a visitor-based sense of belonging, b) shared methods for working with visitors that could be applied by other researchers to explore specifics in a particular setting, and c) grounding work to develop survey questions for use across the field. This award is funded by the Advanced Informal STEM Learning program which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments.

Building on existing work around exclusion and inclusion in everyday science learning, this project aims to formally define what a sense of belonging means in the science and natural history museum context as a construct for understanding inclusivity. The research team hypothesizes that the majority of experiences in an entire museum visit have a relatively neutral effect on visitor sense of belonging; however, at times, visitors may experience positive or negative moments, and these moments that matter may influence a visitor's STEM engagement, interest, and/or identity. This exploratory work will help to develop and ground the construct of sense of belonging within the museum visitor's experiences, to identify visitor moments that matter using an equity approach that intentionally centers the experiences of visitors from underrepresented groups, and to form the basis for future research that would support the development of a fieldwide measure of sense of belonging. The research study will focus on defining the construct of sense of belonging so it 1) aligns with the research literature and 2) is grounded in the experiences of science/natural history museum visitors. Photovoice data collection method and interviews will be used with visitors ages six and above to identify moments that matter for them during a visit to a science/natural history museum. This project will create new understanding of this construct for not only science/natural history museums and the larger informal science education (ISE) field, but fill a gap in the overall literature around the construct of sense of belonging. The project will also provide new learnings for the ISE field on how to adapt and use the photovoice method to study complex constructs, such as sense of belonging, in science/natural history museums.

This Pilots and Feasibility Studies award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

2021 Poster - All Are Welcome Here? Understanding Visitors' Sense of Belonging in Science and Natural History Museums
2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 2005773

Team Members

Marjorie Bequette, Principal Investigator, Science Museum of Minnesota
Amy Grack Nelson, Co-Principal Investigator, Science Museum of Minnesota


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2005773
Funding Amount: $300,000


Audience: Evaluators | General Public | Learning Researchers | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: General STEM
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Museum and Science Center Programs | Public Programs

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This material is supported by National Science Foundation award DRL-2229061, with previous support under DRL-1612739, DRL-1842633, DRL-1212803, and DRL-0638981. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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