The role of demographics in visitor surveys

In my last post, I shared information about how to create a survey based on Dr. Falk’s visitor identity theory.  Such a survey can help your museum better understand what is motivating your users to visit your museum.

The identity/motivation of visitors was not the only information I gathered.  I also collected demographic information and information about other important aspects of visitors and their experience, such as length of stay and group size.

Collecting demographic information
In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience Dr. Falk strongly discourages museums to market and serve visitors based on demographics.  Falk writes:

“Knowing a museum-goer’s age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, education, and occupation does not now, nor will it ever tell anyone why someone does or does not visit a specific museum…museum-going is far too complex to be understood only on the basis of easily measured variables such as demographics.”

I agree that demographics are the not primary type of information to gather and use when understanding and serving visitors.  However, there are still some benefits to collecting demographics.

Age is important to know because if too many visitors are in a certain age bracket the museum has some work to do to attract visitors of other ages.

There should be some balance in the gender of visitors.  If there is too much imbalance the museum may want to explore ways of correcting that.

The same idea applies to ethnic / racial heritage.  Museums have an obligation to serve everyone in the community.  If visitors of certain ethnic / racial heritages are not coming to the museum then there is a problem.

Image result for census

Arnold Lehman, the now retired director of the Brooklyn Museum, has said “the most important book any museum director should read is the U.S. Census.”

The Census is only one of many governmental resources for demographic information.  Many local governments collect and sort Census data in a way that is beneficial to museums.  In a study I compared the results of the participating visitors with demographic information from the Greater Des Moines Partnership.  The Partnership gathered demographic information for eight central Iowa counties, including the county where the study museum was located.  Thankfully, the study sample closely mirrored the racial and ethnic heritage makeup of central Iowa.  Keeping tabs on the demographics is an important measurement of the museum’s mission to serve the public.

Here are a couple of important tips to keep in mind when collecting demographic information:

First, make sure visitors participating in the survey understand that providing this information is voluntary.  Some people may be wary of providing strangers with their racial /ethnic heritage, age, gender identification, or other demographic information.  You can make study participants more comfortable in providing this information by asking for it at the end of the survey and by allowing visitors to provide the information privately.

Second, descriptions of racial / ethnic heritage and gender identity are constantly changing.  Do a little research to see the classifications that others are using.  Facebook now allows users to choose from one of 71 different gender options.  You’ll have to decide what types of classifications you’ll want to use.  If you plan on comparing study participants with another set of data, such as the U.S. Census, you may have to use the same classifications as the other data set.  The good news is that agencies collecting demographic information are now constantly revising their classifications in response to the public.

Collecting other types of visitor information
While you’re collecting data about visitor motivations, why not collect some other data about them?  It will only give you more insight into your visitors.

For a study I conducted, I asked visitors to tell me how many people were in their group.  I did this because museum-going is a social experience.  If we consider the visitor alone we miss out on understanding the visitor’s social context of the visit.

In my study, I wanted to know how many people over and under the age of 18 were in each visitor’s group.  Knowing the average group size can help you design exhibits and other services that can accommodate visitor groups.

I also tracked the time visitors spent at the museum.  When people find that the expectations associated with their motivation for visiting are fulfilled they will be more likely to stay longer at the museum.  If expectations are not met, they will cut the visit short.

There are other types of visit information you can collect that will add insight into visitors, such as if it is their first visit, if they are a member, etc.

Concluding thought
I believe it is important for all museums to periodically measure and understand the motivations and demographics of their visitors.  Museums are not able to properly serve visitors unless they know what motivates guests to visit and if the expectations associated with visits have been met.

As institutions that serve the public, museums have an obligation to know if their visitors reflect the community.

Collecting other information about the visit can give you greater insight to how your visitors are using your museum, which can help you make the adjustments needed to provide more fulfilling visits for your users.

I’m passionate about surveying and understanding visitors because it makes for a stronger museum.


A Review of Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making

Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke
Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke

At my museum, we are beginning the process to create our first interpretive master plan.  I’ll blog about our experience creating our plan as we move along, in the hope that it helps other museums create their own interpretive master plans.

In order to prepare to create our plan, my professional reading is focused on interpretation.  I just finished Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making, by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke (2013).

There does not seem to be many books available to assist museums in developing interpretive plans.  I was drawn to the title of this book because I believe that visitors are at the center of museum work.  If that is true, then we must ensure that visitor perspectives are included in all of our planning efforts, including interpretive plans.  After all, the people who benefit the greatest from interpretation are visitors.

I found this book to be a helpful as well as an enjoyable read.  The book is well organized, with chapters devoted to:

  • The conceptual frameworks of museums, visitors and interpretation;
  • An overview of interpretive planning;
  • Information about the authors’ Outcomes Hierarchy; and
  • Chapters about interpretive master planning and project planning.

The chapter about the conceptual frameworks of museums, visitors and interpretation is helpful because it reminds the reader about the basis on which interpretation is built.  Before beginning any interpretive planning, we must first understand:

  • How museums operate as learning institutions;
  • How different types of visitors learn;
  • The expectation that museums will provide benefit to visitors and communities; and
  • The principles of interpretation.

The authors provide a good overview in this chapter, with plenty of references to research and resources for those who are willing to further explore these critical areas of influence on museum operation.

Stephen Weil (2003) once wrote “As profits are to a business, so outcomes are to a museum.”  The expectation that museums produce outcomes, or benefits for their visitors and communities, continues to grow.  With this in mind, the authors have created the Outcomes Hierarchy, a helpful tool to help ensure that museum interpretation creates and is guided by outcomes.

There are four tiers to the Outcomes Hierarchy pyramid.  The base, or first tier, is audience data and information.  The second tier is outputs (people, programs, products).

The third tier is outcomes, how visitors are changed as a result of their experience at the museum (Wells, Butler, and Koke, 2013, p. 55).  Outcomes are divided into immediate, short-term and long-term.  The authors further divide outcomes into domains: intellectual, emotional, social, and psychomotor (which relates to behaviors or the senses).

The fourth, or highest tier on the pyramid, is impacts.  The authors describe impacts as the “collective results or effects” (p. 59) of museum experiences.  Impacts are long-term influences on individuals, social groups, communities, economies, and the environment.

In the chapters about master plans and project plans, the authors do not provide prescriptions for creating these plans.  Instead, they offer a general framework and guidance for what these plans include and how to put them together.  The authors note that each master plan and project plan will vary, based on the variables of the museum and the project.

The Outcomes Hierarchy is useful because it helps build visitor perspectives into both types of plans.

The planning chapters include real-life examples from museums and botanical gardens.  Personally, it was nice to see examples from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens included throughout the book.  While the examples come from certain types of museums, the principles the authors explain apply to all museum types.

I would encourage anyone considering undertaking interpretive planning to begin by reading this book.  The overview it provides is a good foundation to begin.

The Outcomes Hierarchy is a strong contribution to the overall museum field and the field of interpretive planning.  It reminds us of the purpose of museum work:  to make a difference in our visitors and communities.  By using the Outcomes Hierarchy, museums can articulate the difference they are trying to make, document how these intentions will influence their interpretive plans, and measure if their intentions and interpretation are indeed making those differences.

Weil, S.E. (2003, November / December). Beyond big and awesome: Outcome-based evaluation. Museum News, 40-53.

Wells, M., Butler, B., & Koke, J. (2013). Interpretive planning for museums: Integrating visitor perspectives in decision making. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Thoughts on beginning a museum career, the visitor experience, and positive word-of-mouth marketing

This week, after years of thinking about making a career move into museums, and two years of intense graduate study, I begin my museum career.  I couldn’t be more excited!

This is an exceptional time to begin working in museums.  Our field has recognized that in the 21st century it is the visitor that is at the center of museum activity.  However, in many ways museums are still adapting to this shift.

Understanding visitors and meeting their needs is not easy.  It’s also work that never ends.  As the demographics of our society changes, as new communication methods are created, and as we continue to refine our own practice of serving visitors, we must continually change and adapt.

My museum career begins as a Guest Experience Manager.  I’ve noticed that many museums are starting to create roles around the guest or visitor experience, and I think this is an important development.  If our field is serious about serving visitors then we need someone in each of our institutions who is responsible for managing and refining the visitor experience.

All museum professionals and staff—guards, curators, educators, directors, human resources managers—should have the visitor experience top of mind.  However, putting someone in charge of the visitor experience helps the museum coordinate its efforts and resources to create a seamless experience.


Positive experiences at the museum promote return visits; the cultivation of visitors into members and possibly donors; and encourage positive word-of-mouth marketing.  Thanks to the internet, we live in a world in which we can all be reviewers and have the ability to see what other people think of their experience before we try it out ourselves.

Gone are the days when we rely on this information only from family or friends.  Before I travel for leisure, I always check websites where people review hotels, restaurants, and places to visit.  I don’t know any of the people whose reviews I read and yet I trust their opinion and make choices based off what they’ve said.

We place much trust in those who do not have a stake in the marketing of a service or product because we perceive that the person giving us their opinion is unbiased.

This is ultimately why a visitor or guest experience manager is so important.  When people have good experiences at our museums, they will become our advocates and tell others.  It helps us advance our mission by giving us the potential to reach more people.

What people are saying about your museum to others is one of the most important indicators of whether or not your museum is successful.  A visitor or guest experience manager can focus on creating outstanding experiences and maintaining a high level of visitor satisfaction.  This work is bound to have a positive impact on the museum.

What are people saying about the experience at your museum?

Image credit: 212 Media Studios