Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Numbers Game

Museums, like most organizations, run by the numbers.  Budgets, Schedules, Opening Dates, and most of all, Attendance Figures.

Museums are a little obsessed with attendance numbers.  Like the results of standardized tests in the Education world, we in the Museum world want to use those attendance numbers (and visitor demographics) for validation --- especially with funders.

Take that nice infographic at the top of this post for example. (Thanks to Philip Katz from AAM for providing this info!) It shows that the annual attendance in 2010 for all U.S. museums was approximately 850 million.  Wow! That's a lot! Especially when you compare that number with the combined bar on the right which totals up the annual attendance for major league sports and theme parks at 471 million.

(For you data heads, AAM says that the typical annual attendance is 850 million (defined as discrete on-site visits).  By comparison, the major pro sports (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) had 132 million paid attendees (in 2010) and theme parks attracted 339 million (in 2009). AAM relies on the statistics gathered by the Motion Picture Association of America in their 2010 Theatrical Market Statistics [see], rather than going back to the original sources.)

But beyond providing a little cocktail party trivia, or a clever opening line for a conference speech, what do those numbers really tell us? What's the context?

Are we to believe that people somehow value museums more than major league sports or theme parks? If so, why don't we have more "museum fans" wearing jerseys and lining up every day outside before opening time?  (Or better yet, scalping tickets to get inside!)

I'm grateful for every museum and every museum visitor that the 850 million number represents, but I'm also worried about the people (increasingly young and non-White) who aren't represented by those numbers.

I'm concerned that we as a field will think that somehow we're "beating" theme parks and major league sports when we should be concerned that alternative "edutainment" venues are appropriating our best ideas and techniques and using them to eat our lunch.

I applaud AAM's efforts to ask how can we use these numbers to become part of a far-reaching discussion with museum visitors (and those not yet regularly visiting) and policy makers.

Because it's not just a "numbers game." It's how we use the numbers and data to improve and continue to push all museums forward in these tricky economic times.


UPDATE: Please share your financial data to help AAM fight for all museums on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. In the past, museums across the nation contributed data to AAM's Museum Financial Information survey; now museums can contribute the same key data through AAM’s secure online tool, Museum Benchmarking Online (MBO) ( Museums need credible, comprehensive data to make our case to policymakers – especially when they start cutting budgets. MBO is a quick, easy way to support the advocacy efforts of the entire museum field.

Go to for details, including a list of the data being collected, a checklist of the documents you’ll need to assemble, a video introduction to the system, and highlights of the additional benchmarking capabilities for subscribers. You do not need to subscribe or be an AAM member to enter your museum’s data. For the good of the museum field, please take a few minutes to share your vital statistics with AAM. If you have questions, send them to

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  1. Anybody else think those numbers sound unrealistically high? 3 visits per year from every man woman and child in the US?

  2. @Stewart

    That's the beauty of "self reported" numbers isn't it?

    Even with avid museum goers factored in, it does seem a bit on the high side. I'll contact AAM to find out what they say.

    It reminds me of the numbers reported by a museum quite near a bridge in Detroit. The joke was they counted the people in every car that passed!

  3. In response to my query (and the issue Stewart raised) about the validity of the attendance numbers, Philip Katz, AAM's Assistant Director, Research was kind enough to respond:

    "The attendance numbers are soft, as you know. Part of the estimate comes from self-reporting in a study conducted by IMLS. But all evidence suggests that the order of magnitude is absolutely correct. Remember that the total includes: a) foreign visitors and b) visits to zoos, aquaria and public gardens (which the museum community consider to be museums, though many outside the museum community do not). Personally, I know lots of people who take their kids to zoos and children's museums more than 3 times a year.

    And here is another reality-check: the self-reported gate attendance by museums (NOT individuals) that responded to AAM's Museum Financial Information Survey in 2008 can be extrapolated to a total annual attendance of at least 474 million and as much as 2.2 billion (depending on which extrapolation method is applied to the imperfect sample). So, the bottom line: 850 million is an estimate on the high side, but we stand behind it."

  4. Thanks for highlighting the need for accurate, reliable numbers about the museum field. Without sound numbers, it's hard to make the best case for museums. That's why AAM is asking all museums to share some of their vital statistics via Museum Benchmarking Online ( for more details). MBO replaces the old Museum Financial Information survey. The new tool is designed to collect aggregate data about the field AND provide individual museums with peer comparisons for planning purposes. Contributing data for the good of the field is free; museums have to become paid subscribers for access to the powerful benchmarking features.
    -- Phil Katz, AAM