Dear Evaluator

Dear Evaluator,

Question: We collect a lot of information from visitors, but we don’t use it very well (or at all). Any tips on how to make use of feedback collected from visitors on programs and exhibitions?


Dear Saddled-with-Data,

You’re definitely not alone; as a research consultant to museums, I hear some version of this question on a regular basis, from both large and small institutions. In fact, some museums hire our firm to help them answer just this question. We’re sometimes asked to help museums develop an institution-wide evaluation plan, along with the tools (such as survey instruments and data collection protocols) to implement that plan. It’s an important question to be asking, and responses to it can range in complexity. I hope that the short answer offered here is a helpful start.

Before I address your current situation, let me say that the best way to make use of data is to have a clear plan before you begin collecting it of how you’ll be putting it to use—and that will drive the kind of data you collect. Consider the collecting activities of an art museum for a moment. A museum whose mission is to preserve and present encyclopedic collections would typically have a clear collecting strategy in place that helps to identify gaps. It would not spend its efforts purchasing as many contemporary paintings as possible, even if a collection of them came on the market and were easy to obtain, unless that was an area that they were deliberately trying to build. In the same way, it is crucial to clearly identify your current knowledge gaps and to know what you ultimately want to accomplish by filling them, before you begin collecting data.

For example, if your goal is to attract more visitors under 35, you’ll probably want to learn whether your current strategies for doing so are accomplishing the task, or if new strategies are needed. In that case, you might want to use a survey to track visitors’ ages over time and gather data on what motivates the attendance of these younger visitors. In addition, you could conduct interviews or focus groups to hear directly from younger visitors (or potential visitors) about what would make for a compelling visit experience.

If you already have a lot of data in hand, you can still approach that data with specific, strategic questions in mind. Let’s imagine for a minute you have that same goal of attracting under 35's, but you’re sitting on a mound of data and don’t have the resources to implement a new study. There could be a way to mine or filter your existing data to begin to understand how to better accommodate that age group.

For example, it’s possible that the public programs department has been collecting age data when participants register for programs, that the membership department collects age data at the point of sale, and that the marketing department deployed a survey a year ago that happened to include both a satisfaction question and a question about age. You could use all of this to begin to understand what types of programs under 35's attend, what types of memberships they are attracted to (if any), and their current levels of satisfaction.

But once you have that pertinent data, there’s still more work to do to ensure that it’s actually put to use. Here are a few ideas you might try that have helped other museums.

  1. Form a cross-departmental visitor studies team that meets regularly (one a month or quarter) to discuss data collected (and/or needed). Alternatively, begin dedicating 15 or 30 minutes to this topic in already-scheduled meetings.

  2. During such meetings, have the person or team with the most at stake (or who is potentially most impacted by the findings), present the data and begin a conversation about what it means and how they are considering using it. This might be a curator or a program manager.

  3. Before presenting findings, have those present make their predictions. The reason for this is that once we hear what was found, it can feel obvious. But in reality, our assumptions are often off. The more we find the data surprising, the more likely we are to put it to use.

  4. Create a dashboard with simple, easy-to-scan tables that draw from inputted data at a fairly broad level. This can be referenced regularly at such meetings and could serve as an online resource that is updated and accessed by multiple departments. It could include some consistent data you want to track over time (e.g., demographics), and it have tables or charts added to show data relevant to more specific, targeted evaluation questions (e.g., how are people using an app).

  5. Be open to findings revealing the unexpected and triggering new explorations to pursue. 

Best of luck to you, and happy learning!

Sharisse Butler
Senior Associate, Slover Linett Audience Research
Chicago, Illinois