COVES was initially driven by a need within several founding science centers which, in turn, helped us identify a larger field-wide need. Science centers wanted to answer questions about their visitors, but they also wanted to know the answers to larger questions, such as, “How do we compare to other museums?” Points of reference exist in other sectors, but few, if any, data points were relevant to the work of cultural institutions such as science museums. Additionally, while several individual institutions are already studying their own visitors’ experiences, the infrastructure to support collaboration across science museums is currently lacking. Conversations with colleagues at other science centers revealed that this need was shared by institutions across our field.
The first group of museums to come together to begin imagining a field-wide system for gathering and comparing visitor data was funded through a National Forum Grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2011, Creating a Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies (C-COVES) (LG-66-12-0634-12). Through this grant, the Museum of Science, Boston hosted a convening where experts representing all areas of the museum discussed the possibilities that creating a collaboration like COVES might bring about. From this convening, recommendations for such a collaboration was written, and a grant proposal was submitted, and later funded, to the IMLS funding opportunity, National Leadership Grant for Museums.
The “Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies” (COVES) project (MG-20-14-0060-14), which funded the development of the system that supports the COVES initiative, ran from November 2014 through September 2018. This grant, and the ensuing relationships and processes that developed among the 12 participating museums, allowed COVES to develop into the initiative that it is today.