Cheering for the Underdog: Small Museum Surveying

By Megan Pratt, Pensacola MESS Hall

I like data. Our board of directors has mocked me because I send them weekly attendance updates. Since our opening in 2012, we have tried to gather as much data as possible about our visitors. At first, it was just for our own information. We had simple surveys when we opened, asking where visitors were from, how they heard of us. At that point we were mostly asking the question, should we continue past a trial run? Luckily the answer was yes. And, also fortuitously, the data we had on our visitors during our first months of operations positioned us for an amazing grant opportunity for tourism promotion, helping us hit the ground running when opening our current year round facility.

Unfortunately, as a small museum, pulled in a million directions, we neglect data collection. Our staff have tried to keep tallies of some visitor demographics required for grant proposals, while we also spend time generally talking to visitors about their experiences. But we weren’t terribly systematic about it, and that bothered me.

Along came the opportunity to participate in COVES. We were invited because they wanted to include “small” museums. I don’t think they had any idea how “small” small is, at least for us! Most days during the school year we have one person running our 3,000 square-foot museum. There likely are one or two other staff working in our classroom (we have no pensacola-mess-hall-downtown-pensacolalegitimate office space), at least part of the day. So, the person who took your money for admission, the person helping you with the activities, and the person who asks for the survey are frequently one and the same. It was, therefore, not a surprise to us that we had a very high rate for willingness to do the survey—they are now our friends, cheering for us. Unfortunately, we can never precisely say how many hours we are surveying, since it is wrapped up in so many other things. Even when we have a person (usually me) explicitly there for surveys, that person is straightening up, answering questions, and other performing many other tasks. I have a little fear that it is not truly a random sample, with some surveying predicated on our busyness.

One of the most surprising things we saw in the survey data from our first few months is the racial distribution. Our community is approximately 75% white, 20% African American, with other minorities a very small proportion. Over the last year, we had been starting to think that we were getting more diversity in attendance. The actual data was a reminder that we remember uniqueness selectively—only 10% of our visitors are African American. We are now interested in digging into this. We’re wondering if this difference is partially due to the fact that only 50% of our visitors are locals or what other methods we could use to attract a broader representation of our community.

On a more amusing point, we were surprised at how few folks said that weather was a factor. When we discussed this with the Massachusetts and Illinois COVES folks, they joked that the weather is never bad in Florida. However, a couple of weeks later, we had half of our attendance for the week on a Wednesday, because it was a rainy day during spring break season—lots of Georgia tourists needing entertainment. Thinking back, though, the time period of the first COVES report, our weather was generally really nice (and our overall attendance was a bit down—coincidence?).

Participating in COVES has encouraged us to up our game, working hard to get information from all of our visitors. We have used some of the ideas we have gotten from participation to create surveys for our other programs, like field trips and camps. As we plan our programs, surveying is becoming an integral part of the discussion—what information would we like to get from the participants and how will we get it. We are also looking forward to getting longer term numbers to see what true patterns emerge, and seeing how our data compare to others. This summer we are putting in all new exhibits, just for the summer, and we are interested to see any effect on attendance patterns. Ultimately, all of the data we are collecting will be useful for our larger goal of a new building, informing our plans for space and potential attendance. Solid data will help us convince funders and convince ourselves that the expectations for the new facility are grounded in reality.

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