We are accustomed to counting things. We count down to midnight on New Year’s Eve. We count calories and footsteps and the days until vacation. We count museum members, new members, members at each level; and we count visitors in many different ways. Counting helps us know what’s going on and how we are doing.
In his book, Better, surgeon, scientist, and writer, Atul Gawande delivers an intriguing message that is as applicable to the world of museums, libraries, and schools as well as to the world of medicine. He says people in the medical profession should “count something.” Regardless of what someone actually does in medicine, she should be a scientist in this world.
This leads me to think we all should be counting something in museums as well. We should count to see whether an intuition is close to the mark, to check how an assumption matches reality, or to understand if a good intention is being confused with actual achievement.
Museum’s knowledge about themselves–the experiences they offer, the learning they promote, the relationships they cultivate, and what their audiences expect–is incomplete. Nevertheless they want to make decisions informed by evidence in order to do better.
Of course, museums do gather and monitor information about attendance and donors. They conduct audience research, evaluate programs, and prototype. These are important, organization-wide practices. But museums are complex and dynamic organizations, active, operating, and engaging on multiple fronts, with thousands of visitors, across many timeframes, at any one moment. They rely on innumerable efforts and diligent practice to do well. Captured information can tell a museum how it’s doing and how it could do better for its community, visitors, staff, and itself.
Everyone can count. Whether you are an educator, designer, developer, evaluator, researcher, data manager, fundraiser, marketer, curator conservator, greeter, guide, explainer, and cashier, volunteer, event planner, or CEO, you can count. In fact, only you can make sure that what you care about is considered and made visible by counting.
An exhortation to count something doesn’t mean launching a massive study. You don’t need to know a K-means cluster analysis from a chi-square. You can tally, time, or track; average daily totals, plot information over time, or compare groups. You can count with ticks and clickers, scratch paper; you can use existing data. Count successes and failures and keep track of the unexpected and unanticipated. They can reveal situations and opportunities that might be significant. You can add notes and take photos. Analyze and reflect and discuss with others. You can frame another question, begin to count again, and set change in motion.
What to Count
Just start counting. Think about something that piques your interest, informs your work, guides you in making decisions, and matters to you. Count something you have wondered about, something that challenges you. Bring your professional knowledge and experience to do better and advance the museum’s interests.
The first rounds of counting may be disappointing and somewhat messy. Carry on and count. Inevitably, one counting question will lead to another and better question. Successive rounds are likely to yield information and more insights. They will also let you be progressively more precise and systematic in what and how you count.
Counting helps in focusing and observing. When you look more closely at what you value and are trying to do, you get a realistic sense of what is happening.
Do you wonder what the museum experience is actually like? You might explore:
- Which questions do visitors ask most at the front desk? In the museum shop?
- How many places are visitors standing in line? At the elevator, rest rooms, an iconic exhibit? How many people are in line? Can you shorten the wait time?
- What’s happening in the front lobby? How many people go into the museum shop? The café? Wait at the door to be picked up?
- If you are hearing complaints from visitors about strollers, count strollers. How many strollers are parked in designated stroller parking lots? In circulation routes?
Do you want to be more confident that you are offering a safe environment?
- How many injuries occur each month at the museum? In what exhibits or at which components do injuries occur more? Less? How many injuries occur for different age groups? What are the nature of the injuries?
Are you interested in knowing more about what happens in exhibits?
- How long does someone watch others at a component before jumping in?
- Which parts of the exhibit do visitors approach and then turn away from?
- How long did an exchange between a gallery guide and visitor last? What’s the average for 20 visitors?
- How long did a visitor stop at a component? How many ways did the visitor engage with it? Now you can ask, “What does engagement look like?”
- How many people are in a gallery alone? With one other person? In a group? How many are talking to one another?
- How many benches in each exhibit area are occupied? Are people sharing a bench or sitting alone? Now you can explore whether galleries need more, or fewer, benches and places to sit and where they should be.
Counting tells you about how your museum is doing in some hard-to-get-at areas. It can help the museum hit the mark where change has occurred, priorities are shifting, or where getting it right matters.
Are you curious about whether your museum is engaging a particular audience group, for Tweens, Millenials, Experts?
- Where are Tweens spending their time? Count how many children 6-8 and 8-11 years are in each exhibit area. Where are the most and fewest children in these age groups present? What time of the day are they most/least present? Asking them what they like best about the areas they are spending time could give clues for better engaging them.
Are you interested in knowing what actually happens in a school or senior tour that you developed or that you promoted for the museum?
- Count how many questions the docent asked. How many were open-ended? How many questions did the students ask?
- What might you count to get a sense that the participants are engaged?
Do you wonder how the museum can better understand the intangible qualities that help describe its value? What cultivating relationships with visitors looks like?
- How many visitors do you know by sight and name when they come into the museum, enroll in a program, join a tour, or sit in on demonstration?
- If you ask a visitor whether this is her first visit to the museum, what could you learn? Ask what she remembered from her last visit. Why?
- What could you learn about the impact of a visit by asking a visitor whether she went on-line, checked out a resource, or looked something up after that visit?
- Learn more about what’s important to visitors. What is fascinating to them about a topic? An exhibit? An object? Why?
- Interested in encouraging compassion and empathy? Walk around and listen for, observe, and record examples of empathetic and compassionate behavior among visitors.
Counting helps solve problems. Counting can help you deconstruct a situation or check assumptions to know what’s really going on. Then you can start trying to solve that problem and do better.
Are you concerned about problems with crowding or underutilized spaces? Are you planning an expansion or a new building and want to understand your current capacity better?
- Study one space, like the atrium or lobby, during a variety of times. How many people can listen to a story or watch a performance in that space? How many are sitting or standing? How many people are too few in the space so it feels empty?
- Where do visitors seem to congregate and what areas do they avoid? Identify high-use and low-use areas; count the number of people in each part of a gallery. Can you influence the “clumping” by locating a high-use component in a low-use area?
- Maybe visitors are crowded in certain areas because there is more (or less) to do. Count the amount-to-do per visitor in an exhibit or area by counting the number of people who can comfortably use each activity or component at one time. Tally it to arrive at a user load. What would the user load of the gallery be?
Do staff complain about adults on their cell phones? About loose parts strewn all over the place? Look around; count to see to what extent and where this is happening before making rules or removing objects.
- How many parents and caregivers are on their cell phone? Count this across different time periods; are there time or space-related patterns?
- More than just tallies help decide how abundant loose parts should be at a museum. But for starters, count where loose parts wind up and compare that with where they started out.
Are some staff and visitors suggesting that exhibit repairs are taking too long?
- Start counting. Count the number of exhibits pulled off the floor for repairs weekly and monthly; count the number of days it takes to repair an exhibit. (Perhaps, gather this information from a comparable museum, or a few.) Identify strategies for lowering the numbers; continue to count and track.
Admittedly, lives are on the line in medicine while in museums they are not. Nevertheless, in museums, reputations, relationships, trust, and responsible use of resources are at risk.
Clearly, counting is not just about numbers and is not the only source of information for solving problems and making improvements. Numbers with thoughtful reflection and discussion can help you act with purpose. If you keep track of what you are interested in knowing, something will be visible that wasn’t before. You can formulate questions for a survey or interview; make changes in staffing and scheduling; reduce injuries and frustrations; and smooth transitions and circulation.
Counting, tracking, and sharing information set them in motion, build connections to the interests and work of others at your museum, and help improve performance. What you count, track, and share can become part of the collective knowledge of your museum.
There may not be sudden or dramatic changes as a result of everything you and your colleagues count. It does begin to reveal, however, that change can happen by diligent attention. Counting can nourish a culture of focus and observation, solve problems, animate the museum’s values, and generate new knowledge about the museum’s visitors and services.
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