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Forming a Cultural Alliance through the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers

Category: Research and Reports
An illustration of an aerial view of Columbus, Ohio.
Results from the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers have become a talking point for two museums in Columbus, Ohio as they partner to strengthen the cultural life of their city. Photo credit: Postcard ca. 1930-45 showing an aerial view of Columbus, from the Tichnor Brothers Collection of the Boston Public Library.

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, Megan Wood from the Ohio History Connection and Cindy Foley from the Columbus Museum of Art explain how the data from the Museum-Goers Survey has helped them form an alliance between cultural institutions in their city.


Megan Wood, Ohio History Connection:

For the last three years, the Ohio History Connection has worked with Wilkening Consulting on the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers. It was a relatively easy decision for us. We could gather information about our visitors and see how it stacked up against other museums, giving us a tool for collecting “smart” data over the years. While our institution is fortunate to have a full-time evaluator on staff, we would have never been able to get this powerful data on our own, because of the pool of comparisons the survey draws on.

One of the ways we’ve used the results is to dive into specific areas in the responses where there is reasonable room to grow. For instance, one of the questions on the survey asks our visitors and stakeholders to rank how much the “staff cares.” The results showed we had room for improvement that went beyond customer satisfaction, to create an altogether more positive feeling about our organization and its brand. We worked in staff meetings to define what it looks like to show staff cares and how we could lead with “caring” in our interactions with visitors. This ranged from simple things like wearing nametags to more complicated things like following up on written complaints with phone calls or off-site meetings. Because we have participated in the survey for multiple years, we’ve been able to track the results of that question and understand whether our efforts are making an impact on the people we serve.

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About ten years ago, educators from cultural institutions across Columbus, Ohio started meeting to talk about learning in our city and our collective impact. Our discussions started to show us the power of conversation and thinking together. Because of these relationships, we shared our results from the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers and convinced one of our colleague institutions to also get involved.

Cindy Foley, Columbus Museum of Art:

In 2018, the Columbus Museum of Art joined. For years, CMA had been doing two types of audience data collection: a large visitor survey exit survey, and other narrowly targeted research efforts to help us understand if visitors were experiencing our intended outcomes in exhibitions. But neither gave us the data to unravel visitor motivations or beliefs, or to evaluate strategic impacts. Ly Foor at the Ohio History Connection talked to me regularly about their Annual Survey data, and with each mention I got more interested. She knew how her data compared to other museums, and even specifically to history museums. She shared how they had been able to focus in on small change, which had directly impacted the following year’s results. A primary reason we decided to jump on board, in addition the low cost of entry, was the focus on understanding how visitors thought about curiosity. CMA had recently determined that creativity would be our institution’s “social mission,” so understanding how our visitors thought about themselves as creative thinkers was enticing.

Our first report held some wonderful surprises. For example, we learned we high numbers of repeat visitors, engaged curious learners, and visitors who believed that our museum contributes to their quality of life. In fact, the results were so positive in our first year that we worried they were skewed by an especially high response rate within the museum family (staff, docents, volunteers.) So, in year two, we decided to not send the survey to these people.

But again, we were surprised. Even without the museum family participating, our results showed that we have “super users.” Sixty percent of our respondents indicated that they visit CMA more than four times a year. Many reported being highly motivated by their own learning and identified as highly curious. And they ranked our staff highly on making them feel welcome, which we were particularly excited about. But some of the most telling insights came from the qualitative responses. Like, how our visitors value the museum experience in relation to whom they come with:

“Spending time with my husband (of 35 yrs) taking in just one exhibit thoroughly and then enjoying a long lunch in the beautiful cafe. It’s hard to find things that engage us and bring us close after all these years, but the museum felt like a creative oasis that day for us. We even found new things to talk about inspired by jointly viewing the exhibit. Always hard to find conversation starters at this age!”

Or the way they value our interpretation strategies:

“Our children love the hands-on activities tied to exhibits. We love art that makes us curious. I am so happy to be able to share these experiences with them.”

Megan Wood:

The power of the survey collective has allowed us to contextualize our data in relation to other cultural institutions, and to think about the impact of history museums relative to other types, but also to see how we align with or vary from our peer institutions. And because we have built working relationships, we can also have productive professional dialogue around our results and use our collective brain power to make better experiences for the people we serve—and really—to make our city a better place.

Cindy Foley:

What seeing data from multiple organizations, particularly sharing with a local peer institution, gave us was the ability to see growth areas. We learned that other institutions were doing much better than us on a range of benchmarks, like diversity and positive perceptions of the institution as a place to have fun! Seeing these metrics allowed our staff to ask new questions about why certain individuals and communities might value an experience at a peer institution more than CMA, or how we might change some misconceptions about CMA. Conversations between our staff and Ohio History Connection’s led us to realize that both institutions are attracting “Explorers” (from the work of John Falk.) I see fruitful opportunity in this cross-institution conversation we are engaged in.

The Columbus Museum of Art is now a champion of this survey, and is actively working to attract even more Columbus cultural organizations! I can imagine that thinking together about our data could lead to cross-programming (to address some of the identified needs of Explorers), staff training swaps (visitor satisfaction, diversity, inclusion, and access) and new joint marketing strategies or messages.

Megan Wood:

The Ohio History Connection is excited to see this collaboration grow across the country, deepening the data available and giving all museums more information about the important and necessary role we play in our communities.


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.

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