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Using the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers as a Catalyst for Change

Category: Alliance Blog
A young child looks through binoculars.
Participating in the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers led History Nebraska to refocus its institution around curiosity, both in visitors and staff. Photo credit: Joseph Rosales on Unsplash.

Who visits our museums? What are their motivations, and what do they expect from the experience? Alternatively, who is not visiting, and why not?

These are critical questions for the future of individual museums, and for the entire field. To gain rich insight into these questions, the Alliance is partnering with Wilkening Consulting on the 2020 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers. Participating in the survey provides data that can be used to take immediate action and make decisions that contribute to the sustainability and vibrancy of your museum. Today, Trevor Jones from History Nebraska explores how their organization uses the data from the Museum-Goers Survey to develop new approaches to visitor engagement.

History Nebraska began participating in the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers in 2017, because we were desperate to know more about our visitors’ motivations. Though we had just completed a major statewide survey assessing general interest and awareness, we lacked a clear understanding of why people were inspired to visit, a gap which the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers could fill.

At the time, our board had just approved a new strategic plan making growing audiences a core goal, but our visitation trends were flat. We turned to the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers to understand why. The survey provided us a baseline measurement of who we were serving and their perceptions of the museum. It also helped us understand our challenges, reinforcing the need for change.

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In addition to what we already knew—that our core customers tended to be older (60+), have more formal education than Nebraska residents overall, and overwhelmingly be  white—the survey taught us how the demographics of our visitors compared to those of peer institutions, and provided insight into people’s motivations for visiting. For instance, we learned that visitors to history museums are drawn more by a self-directed desire to learn than by experiences for children, or time with friends and family.

Discovering that our audience was made up of self-motivated learners, we decided to shift History Nebraska’s programs to focus on curiosity, a trait which the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers shows is more common in people who visit cultural institutions than people who do not. We hoped our programs could not only feed the natural curiosity of this segment, but also foster curiosity among others, growing our audience in the process. For instance, we retooled our fourth-grade school tours into “Curiosity Labs,” where instead of taking a didactic tour, students build questions around touchable objects and then look for answers in our galleries.

We decided that being curious ourselves was the best way to create grow curious audiences, so in addition to incorporating curiosity-based learning in all our programs, we designed the initiative to nurture our staff’s own curiosity. We built curiosity into staff training and company values, renamed our docents “Curiosity Guides,” and reframed our staff’s role in programming and exhibits to be about asking good questions as much as providing factual answers. We even include a monthly “curiosity moment” at our staff meetings. This month featured our HVAC specialist leading a lively discussion of dampers, valves, and humidity control systems! The combination of a better understanding of our visitor’s motivations and a continued investment in our staff’s curiosity has dramatically improved our programming.

Based on the findings of the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers and our other research, we also decided to do a full rebrand, including changing our name from the Nebraska State Historical Society to History Nebraska in April 2018. Since we made these changes in branding and programming, we have seen a steady growth in attendance and an over 100 percent increase in engagement from people in our key 35-55 age group, where we feel we have the greatest potential to grow a future audience of customers, members, and donors.

The changes we have made based on the Museum-Goers research are helping us cultivate an audience for the future. We’ve grown audience engagement in our key 35-55 demographic by 155 percent since 2018, and our overall attendance continues to trend upward. We’ve had to weather some disappointment from our traditional audiences as we’ve continued to emphasize the process of learning over presenting facts, but the Museum-Goers Survey helped provide the data we needed to make the leap, and the confidence needed to stay the course.

Interested in gleaning these kinds of insights? Sign up to participate in the 2020 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers today for a low-cost early rate!

There is nearly no effort required of your team; simply send an email and post a link on social media. Wilkening Consulting analyzes your audience and museum visitors across the U.S. so you can understand how your museum stacks up against the rest of the field. In addition to demographics, you’ll learn more about your audiences, including why they visit, what they believe you’re doing well, and how they wish to see you improve. On top of the questions included in the survey, you also have the opportunity to include two custom questions that address the nuances specific to your museum.

About the author:

Trevor Jones is the Director and CEO of History Nebraska and a member of the American Association for State and Local History Council. His passions are improving management in museums and helping organizations use their artifact collections to support their mission. He is a founder of the group ActiveCollections and co-editor of the book of the same name. His most recent publication is Major: A Soldier Dog a children’s book about the true story of Americans donating their pets to the war effort in WWII.

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