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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