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.
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?