The (Fluctuating Scale of the) Elephant in the Room: Museum Attendance Numbers

All museums are different.  Big or small, science or art, rural or urban, private or public – we all have our own set of metrics that help us determine our relative effectiveness and impact within our sphere of influence. While many of these measurables (exhibit evaluations, grants, gifts, etc.) are pretty common, no metric (it seems) is used as a measure of success more universally than attendance.

And yet, the reality is that there is no profession-wide “standard” process for collecting museum attendance numbers – each museum counts their attendance numbers differently.

Elephant in the Room courtesy of Fuel Your Blogging

Elephant in the Room courtesy of Fuel Your Blogging

So, the question is raised: If no across-the-board standard exists, is attendance a truly fair and effective measure of success within the museum field? And if the answer is “no,” how can museums appropriately (and ethically) use these numbers in donor requests, grant applications, “official” reports and the other myriad ways that these numbers get used for the benefit of the organization? James Chung of Reach Advisors explains why these numbers are used so widely, “There’s an over reliance on this crude indicator [attendance] because it’s the only measure easy to capture” – And I would suggest, it’s the only measure that can be manipulated to meet an institution’s goals/needs.  Mr. Chung also says that attendance projections, “often end up overshooting the mark.”

How does this happen? Why is this so normal?

Because there simply isn’t a standard, profession-wide attendance measurement model.

Finances can’t be exaggerated (or, at least they shouldn’t be) but attendance seems to be another issue all together. If Museum A is recording everyone in and out of an entrance/exit gate and Museum B records any amount of community engagement (ex. counting the attendance numbers for a parade in which they participated) – who’s winning and who’s losing, and, more importantly, how can these numbers be assessed against each other in any meaningful way in a competitive grant process, annual report situation or other instance where a success/effectiveness matrix is required?

As highlighted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, “From parades to concerts how St. Louis’ museums count attendance,” reports of museum attendance in the city of St. Louis range from 350,000 at the St. Louis Art Museum to 3.5 million at the St. Louis Zoo. Given that these institutions have radically different formulas for calculating their numbers, how can the numbers mean anything beyond the walls of the individual institution reporting them?

And more broadly, what’s the alternative? Is it market impact or fundraising dollars? “Likes” on Facebook and followers on Twitter? Should revenue be the ultimate measure of success? Maybe a tiered system of revenue reporting (separating museums into budget categories, for example) could be an effective equalizer.

I certainly don’t have the answer…  What do you think?

How does your museum gauge attendance? How do we go about as a field creating a model that is an honest reflection of our community? Is there such a thing as an “off-site” museum visitor? If that’s the case – do you include Google Analytics in your overall annual attendance? How do we get this under control and structure in a manner that will not only clear the air, but create a realistic playing field of statistics?

6 thoughts on “The (Fluctuating Scale of the) Elephant in the Room: Museum Attendance Numbers

  1. Thanks for pointing to that fascinating article. Too bad it doesn’t include online engagement at all–a big question for museum techies.

    I will always remember a VERY awkward discussion with the head of visitor services at a museum where I’d been told by the director they had 90,000 visitors… she looked away and then mumbled that it was more like 15,000.

    At our museum, we have a total “engagement” count that includes daytime attendance, program attendance, school tours, offsite outreach programs, and facility rentals. We treat the first three of those as our “attendance” and treat outreach and rentals as “additional engagement” that we don’t report as part of our overall attendance. I’ve never thought about counting people when I go give a talk at Rotary (or a conference), but that’s kind of fascinating.

    Of course, like most museums, we track visits, not visitors. We’re trying to install a system now that will allow us to separate unique visitors. The Dallas Museum of Art has done a good job starting to disambiguate these numbers.

  2. I might suggest that one thing that the attendance numbers are useful for is determining trends. As long as the numbers within a single institution are collected in a consistent method across years, it can be readily determined if attendance is declining or increasing. Regardless of how an institution measures attendance, if the trend in that measurement is a downward spiral over the years, than the institution best consider some changes.

    We should not ask “what was your attendance last year?” but rather “what was your attendance over each of the past five years?” Once, we know the trend, we can then ask “why?” Once we think we know why, we can make adjustments to try to change or maintain the observed trend.

    Comparing attendance trends at Museum A and Museum B would help give a picture not where each museum is (a nearly meaningless piece of information given the countless variables that each museum operates within) but more importantly where they’ve been and where they might be going.

    And finally, I would argue that increasing attendance should not always be the goal. While at Independence Hall, I always keep one eye out for the cattle prod–that is one site where guest experience would be greatly enhanced with decreased attendance.

    • I agree with Mark. I think studying the numbers in terms of fluctuations and averages within attendance categories is far more valuable for understanding the bigger picture of what is happening with attendance. Sometimes attendance has nothing at all to do with popularity but more about relevance and response.

  3. A bit of a left turn: the answer to that final question about success measures is exactly where you began, with “effectiveness and impact” – the extent of mission fulfillment. In cases where the volume of contact with people actually signifies an institutional goal (as in Nina’s case, perhaps?) then sure, count those people! Consistently, in order to make meaningful comparisons over time.

    But if the things that matter to a museum are any more complex than that – things like having visitors learn content knowledge, or promoting attitude or behavior changes, or creating satisfying family experiences, or creating a particular *depth or extent* of social engagement for individuals rather than just a quantity of it across a population – then different metrics are needed. Abstract as they may sound, all those aspects of mission are measurable. But attendance numbers are unlikely to ever capture them.

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