Types of Museums

There are over 17,000 museums in the US and they serve almost 900 million people each year.

So on average, Americans attend three museums each year. Of course some people attend many and others attend none. For comparison, the only industry with greater attendance is the movie industry, which has about 1.5 billion tickets sold in a year. About 170 million Americans go to the movies.

We divide the 17,000 museums into a few categories for convenience, but acknowledge that some museums defy categorization or beg for more detailed categorization.

Art museums display works of art by local, national, or international artists and many offer classes in the various disciplines of art. Art galleries are different. Just to be confusing, art museums display art in galleries and art galleries display works of art, too. But the term galleries usually refers to businesses that sell art or promote one artist. Art museums sell art and trinkets in their gift shop, but won’t sell the art hanging on the display wall. Art museums come in all sizes from small to giant. In the US the average attendance for an art museum is about 60,000 people (AAM’s 2006 Museum Financial Information).

History museums and historic houses or sites constitute the largest number of museums in the US and, on average, have the lowest attendance (less than 20,000 per year).
Many tiny towns have a town history museum or historic house, and these swell the number of museums, but reduce the average attendance. A few large history museums and sites draw huge numbers of people. Historic sites, like battlefields, often have collections on display inside buildings as well as interpretative signage and robust artifacts outside.

Natural history museums and nature centers serve similar purposes but with somewhat different approaches. The grand natural history museums found in major metropolitan areas started out to display ecosystems (in dioramas) and nature’s oddities and wonderfulness. Many were funded by the industry titans of yesteryear, whose names adorn galleries and metal plaques hanging along the hallways. Some incorporate planetarium and a few have observatories. The heavily endowed natural history museums have curatorial staffs that conduct academic research and maintain collections of minerals, insects, mammals, birds, shells, etc. Some have live collections, but nature centers are more likely to have them. Nature centers are often newer and smaller, and do not have substantial collections or conduct research. Collectively natural history museums and nature centers have an average attendance on par with art museums.

Museums started in the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to focus on showing art and natural wonders to their audience. A new model of a museum and one that stretches the definition of museum is the children’s museum. Unlike its older cousins, children’s museums have few or no collections. They focus on providing experiences and learning programs for children and families. In recent years the concept has been finding more adherents and children’s museums are experiencing rapid growth. There are about 300 children’s museums in the US – by far more than in the rest of the world combined. If your mental image of a museum is quiet, dusty, and academic, visit a children’s museum for a paradigm shift. On average children’s museums draw about 80,000 people a year. Many of the museums are quite small and draw a fraction of this number. And of the attendees, many are repeat attendees with some returning on a weekly schedule.

Most people’s image of a museum starts with being inside a building. But arboretum and gardens are types of museums where the collections are display, for the most part, outdoors. Attendance here is quite high: on average over 100,000 people attend each arboretum.

Keeping the average attendance numbers of the other museum types in mind, consider that science museums draw about 250,000 visitors a year – some four times as many as art museums or history museums. Is science so popular? Not really, but science museums, like children’s museums, exist to provide experiences, not to show off collections. They provide a more active experience – one that appeals especially to families. The science museum movement leaped forward in the 1960s and 1970s and continues to expand today. Since they evolved after the era of grand industry titans, they tend to be supported by the income they can generate, rather than by endowment. This means that they have to have larger attendance and more memberships to stay afloat financially. Many are entrepreneurial or at least more entrepreneurial than other museums. Surprisingly, few scientists work at science museum – of course not many employees at an art museum are artists.

In terms of attendance, the 900 pound gorilla in the museum world lives in a zoo. On average zoos draw nearly 450,000 per year. Their income lives and dies with the weather: on warm, sunny spring days everyone wants to go to the zoo. Zoos are more recreational than educational, but all have classes and presentations. Some, especially aquarium (which we are lumping with zoos), engage in research that is funded by federal agencies. How would like a job at SeaWorld or a San Diego zoo job?

In addition to these types of museums are general museums. These often combine several disciplines under one roof. For instance there are museums that provide exhibits and programs in art, history, and science under one roof.

Maritime museums focus on ships and all things nautical. This includes the art, history, and science of people at sea. Usually it doesn’t include marine life except for fisheries. Like ships on the ocean, ships in the air warrant their own museums. Air and space museums are quite popular and there are dozens of them scattered across America. Not to be outdone is land transportation with both car and train museums. Learn about maritime job opportunities in another section of JobMonkey.

Halls of Fame remind us of famous toys, inventors, and football players. And, dozens of other groupings. Like transportation museums, halls of fame typically cover a spectrum of academic fields in their focus on the best of class within their grouping.

And, there are other specialty museums: doll museums, toy museums, agricultural museums. The National Museum of Play is one such museum. Then there is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village – what do you call a collection of everything an eccentric rich man could buy? You call it a museum.

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