An interpretive study of African Americans' mental models of museums and visitation: "...you think, damn, so close, but yet so far."

Date of Completion

January 2010


African American Studies|Black Studies|Education, Adult and Continuing|Museology




Given the absence of racially inclusive museum visitation studies, the challenge for museum and adult learning researchers is to better understand African Americans' mental models of museums and how these mental models influence visitation decisions. The conceptual framework for my study was constructed from three diverse, yet complimentary fields of research. First, research on mental models provided a basis for understanding the impact that mental models can have on decisions to participate in learning opportunities, like those offered in museums. Second, Knowles' (1980) concept of andragogy provided an understanding of how characteristics of adult learners' and the learning context may further influence visitors' conceptions of museums and visitation decisions. And lastly, Critical Race Theory (CRT) allowed me to examine how museum philosophies, policies, and practices have influenced African Americans' mental models and visitation of museums. Two research questions guided the study: 1) What are African Americans' mental models of museums?; and 2) In what ways do African Americans' mental models of museums influence their visitation? ^ The study utilized an interpretative qualitative design (Merriam & Associates, 2002), which, "...seek[s] to discover and understand a phenomenon, a process or the perspectives and worldviews of the people involved" (Merriam, 1998, p. 11). The sample was purposeful and representatively selected and comprised 8 African Americans. Data 11 were collected via three methods: modified Twenty Statements Tests (Kuhn & McParland, 1954), semi-structured interviews, and concept mapping. Data were inductively analyzed using a constant-comparative method and revealed four themes: (a) museums are conceived as, and visited because they are worthwhile places of learning; (b) museums are visited because they provide an escape from socio-cultural pressures; (c) museums are conceived as offering narrow representations of African Americans that perpetuate African American stereotypes; and (d) museums are conceived of at times as not wanting and not accepting African American visitors. By eliciting African Americans' mental models, instead of relying on anecdotal evidence, museums will have a more accurate understanding of African American "edutainment" needs and wants, with which to develop future exhibitions and programming.^