It’s about museum attendance and how the five big, free museums in St. Louis count it. There’s quite a range. Summer concerts at the past history museum? This count. Outdoor movies at the creative art museum? Nope. On the St. Louis Science Center, the focus of this article, there was an especially creative perspective on attendance, including figures for offsite plank meetings, parades where personnel made a showing, and attendance at a college next door. The only form of engagement without this article is online participation–which for most museums, could yield the best numbers of all.
Even if you consider a few of these counting ways of be egregious, the essential question continues to be relevant: who counts? When I reflected on our museum, I noticed some inconsistencies are acquired by us in how exactly we calculate attendance. For us, the annual attendance includes programmatic activities onsite and off (about 10% of our programming is conducted at community sites). That means daytime visitors, event participants, college tours, and outreach program individuals. It does not include facility accommodations, meetings, fundraising events, nor people who might see us at a grouped community event however, not directly engage.
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What’s missing from this picture? And there are the weird inconsistencies. Why do we count participants within an art activity for families at a residential area center but not members of the Rotary Club, to whom I give a presentation about the museum? Why do we count guests who tour the galleries communicating with their friends however, not site visitors who tour the galleries communicating with a staff member (i.e. within a gathering)? This won’t even get to the potential parsing of people’s motives. If someone comes to an exhibition starting for the free food, do they matter?
If a youngster gets dragged to a museum with their parents, do they depend? If someone has an epiphany about art outside the museum, do they count up? Probe too deeply and the question gets absurd. The more important question is not WHO counts but WHAT counts. Internal to an individual museum, relative attendance–changes over time or program–can produce useful information. But if you try to make meaning out of attendance evaluations across institutions, you begin juggling oranges and apples. While many institutions separate attendance by program area, I have no idea of any that separate attendance into “impressions,” “light engagement,” “deep engagement,” etc. – categories that might have meant actually.
What is meaningful in the framework of attaining our mission? That’s the number we ought to be capturing. How can we measure impact? That is clearly a huge question. Let’s look at it in the slim context of the relationship between attendance and impact. What’s the given information value of attendance? Attendance does a good job representing how popular an institution is, how used it is, and how those two things vary over differing times of the day, the week days of, times of year, and types of programs. But will attendance demonstrate objective fulfillment? Unless your mission is “to engage X number of people,” not probably. For some institutions, like the MCA Denver, attendance is seen as a very poor way of measuring impact.
But for nearly all museums (even MCA Denver), attendance is correlated with impact in some real way. For attendance to be correlated with impact, you have to discover a way to articulate a theory of change that connects attendance to your mission (inspiration, learning, civic participation, etc.). And then, you have to be able to estimate a conversion factor that relates the number of individuals who attend to the quantity for whom the mission is fulfilled. Imagine managing a shoe store.
Your mission is to market shoes. Attendance is the total number of people who walk in the door. Of those social people, 10% actually buy shoes. That means 10% is your transformation factor; if you want to market 5 pairs of shoes, you will need fifty visitors to walk through the hinged door. Now suppose your mission isn’t only to market shoes, but to develop relationships with customers who will love your shoes and buy more of these in the foreseeable future. Maybe the conversion factor from first sale to repeated sales is 20%. You have fifty people who walk through the door Now, five who buy shoes, and one who will be a longtime customer.
Now let’s turn back to museums. The St. Louis Science Center’s mission is to “ignite and sustain lifelong research and technology learning.” What’s the transformation factor from a single visit to that mission? I’d begin by splitting the “igniting” from the “sustaining.” You could argue that any one visit or connections with the Science Center–at the facility, out in the community, online–could have the spark of ignition. But sustaining lifelong learning takes a different degree of commitment. Or volunteers who take part on a weekly basis. Or students who visit at some true point and go on to careers in science and technology.
It’s not easy, however the museum could define the indicators it considers representative of sustained learning. Those incidences could be counted by it. With some effort, you could calculate conversion factors from igniting to sustaining for every major program area. And if you understood the conversion factor for general attendance from igniting to sustaining, you could actually generate an estimation of just how many of the kids zooming around the facility are likely to sustain a lifelong interest in science. Looking at it in this manner would also allow establishments to expand beyond reductive “all about attendance” methods to demonstrating impact.
You could argue that a few of the most important work of “igniting and sustaining lifelong research and technology learning” has nothing in connection with attendance to the technology center. It could involve producing ad campaigns linking science to community issues, or advocating for job-training programs in technology, or designing curriculum for community colleges.