From her home in Magnolia, Susie Wilkening is hard at work to save and improve museums everywhere.
Wilkening, originally from Georgia, is the founder and principal of Wilkening Consulting. Her small but mighty firm explores the role of museums in American society and attempts to find ways that they can matter more to residents.
Each year, Wilkening and her team sets out to explore the country’s thoughts about museums because, according to her website, “Museums desperately need high-quality research that explores their role in our society.”
Not only that, Wilkening said museums need an expert to sift through all of the research, trends, reports and articles and make sense of it all. To synthesize all of the information and share the relevance with each of the participating organizations, Wilkening developed a process she calls Knowledge Creation, and even trademarked the name. By gathering the most recent data and filtering it through her own expert lens, she can provide museums with the important data that can help them better engage with their audiences.
To do this, each year, her firm embarks on its Annual Survey of Museum-Goers in partnership with the American Alliance of Museums.
This survey is distributed to museums and other organizations like zoos, aquariums, science centers and botanical gardens and is a major effort to gather data about both frequent museum-goers as well as more casual and sporadic visitors. Wilkening said they typically have about 200 museums participating each year.
The surveys allow Wilkening to understand who visits museums, why they visit, the impact they think they receive from those museum visits and, crucially, how their values influence their museum experience.
“We are in the field right now, so if you are on the email list of a local museum, you may be getting a survey request from that museum soon,” Wilkening said.
The origins of her research date back to her early years as a museum professional. After earning a history degree from Georgia Tech and a Master of Arts from Winterthur Program in Early American Culture in Maryland, she spent five years running a small historical society in upstate New York where her job responsibilities ran from “administration to fundraising to marketing to, sure, cleaning the toilets” she said.
Around this time, she started grappling with the question of relevance: “Why did this organization exist? Why did people care about the history of that community? What about those who were not visiting? Did they not care, or was it a relevance issue? Why did we matter?”
She continued to wonder about these questions as she moved on to a larger historic site and felt disheartened when she couldn't find any research out there that helped backed up her instinctive feeling that history, history museums and museums, in general, deeply mattered. And when a research firm reached out to her for help completing a museum project, she parlayed that into the next chapter of her career.
That six-week project turned into 10 years where she developed and led a full-museum research practice. Then seven years ago, she branched out on her own and created Wilkening Consulting, LLC, a team of people working across the country, fielding audience research for museums.
Wilkening said the annual survey began in 2017, “… because museums across the country were grappling with those big questions I have been grappling with for 25-plus years now.”
“Every year, we get better at answering those questions,” she added.
THE 2023 SURVEY
In addition to regular trends and visitor demographics, this year’s Annual Survey is examining four things:
• How to increase visitation to pre-pandemic levels
• Understanding the role people want museums to have in encouraging civic engagement and community.
• Understanding attitudes towards inclusions. Wilkening said while many museums are doing increasingly good work in this area, there are audiences that are more ambivalent about inclusion, as well as those who are anti-inclusive.
• Connection to humanity: Last year, the survey found that individuals who feel only a weak or no connection to humanity were far less likely to have inclusive attitudes toward diversity, climate change, and more. This led to a lot of questions about how important it is for people to feel connected to broader humanity as a way of cultivating empathy and compassion.
Since she can work from anywhere and her husband works in affordable housing, they set up shop in Seattle with their two children. Wilkening works out of her Magnolia basement, which she says, “… is great because I have the flexibility to walk my dogs, organize my family and be home at the end of the school day.”
She said besides the additional travel time associated with living in the far corner of the country, the biggest problem of living in Seattle is that its politics are different from many other places in the country.
“I live in a blue, liberal bubble, and I have to constantly remind myself that the rest of the United States is a very different place, and ‘my’ museums are in communities very different than Seattle,” she said.
In addition to local institutions like Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Aquarium, Henry Art Gallery, Museum of Flight, the Washington State History Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, Wilkening has also worked with organizations large and small across the country including: History Nebraska, Omaha Children’s Museum, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Smithsonian Museums, Mount Vernon and Monticello.
That variety gives her a more comprehensive picture of the people who live in the country, their worldviews, attitudes and values. She said that each morning she reminds herself to leave her Seattle bubble and face all of the complexities of the country with an open mind in a practice she calls "radical curiosity and courageous empathy.”
One of the things her research is uncovering is the role museums play in helping people forge connections with humanity and how important that is.
“Because museums allow people, whether in their hometown or when they travel, to explore the worlds and experiences of people of different times, places, cultures and worldviews,” Wilkening said. “They help us consider what it means to be human, both today and in the past.”
Wilkening contends that if that connection to humanity is a prerequisite for caring about what happens to everyone on the planet, then museums have a critical role in enabling those attitudinal shifts.