Accurate data on audience demographics is way forward

Nick Merriman, Issue 118/02, p14, 01.02.2018
National and civic museums should have visitor democratisation as a fundamental goal
A year ago, reflecting on Brexit and the Trump presidency, I argued that although we have made good progress over the past 20 years on widening museum audiences, we have mostly failed to open them up to all sections of society – to become mass-participation organisations. If we can’t address this, I argued, we are part of the problem of the divided society.

This is easier said than done. But it is possible to make good progress by taking a long-term, consistent approach, as shown by the results of a programme at the Manchester Museum and Galleries Partnership (Manchester Museum, the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery) aimed at making them truly culturally democratic.

The key point is that, as well as making this an organisation-wide project, you also must be really serious about data collection and analysis. Our partnership employs a data manager, Helen Mark, who ensures that our surveys are statistically representative of our visitor population, using appropriate sampling methods. She trains staff and volunteers in data collection and works with the Audience Agency to ensure that our surveys are appropriate. As a result, we are confident that our audience surveys are as accurate as possible.

Overall, 16% of visits to the partnership are from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, which account for 17% of Greater Manchester’s population (with Manchester Museum attracting 24%). However, just 10% of our visitors have a disability or long-term health condition, compared with 20% of Greater Manchester’s population. And 43% of visits are made by those in socio-economic groups C2, D&E, which comprise 54% of Greater Manchester’s population.

Using the Index of Multiple Deprivation, 22% of people in Greater Manchester live in areas classed as among the 10% most deprived in England. But 11% of visitors to Manchester Art Gallery are from this group, as are 14% of visitors to the Whitworth and 19% of visitors to Manchester Museum.

While we still have some way to go, the figures show that it is possible to make progress towards cultural democratisation. The key factors are:

  • Improving our welcome to visitors
  • Prioritising the development and diversification of our visitor team and volunteers.
  • Updating displays to make them more attractive.
  • No charges for any programmes or exhibitions.
  • Picnic facilities to make a visit easy, especially when money is tight.
  • Providing active programming every day of the school holidays and at weekends.
  • Relying on word of mouth and social media as our main marketing tools.
  • Using schools as community hubs to introduce new audiences.
  • Focusing closely on some under-represented communities (eg south Asian) and understanding barriers and interests.
  • Working closely with local communities outside the venue, especially those who can walk to us.

It is difficult to compare these figures with those for other museums and galleries. Surprisingly, despite all of the focus on audiences, we tend not to publicise much beyond visitor numbers. This may be because gathering data on visitor demographics is difficult, and there is no common method. It may also be because publicising these figures would show how far we have to go. But how can museums, with their goal of being for all, know how well they are doing without this data?

National and civic museums, especially those in receipt of significant public funding, should have visitor democratisation as a fundamental goal.
I would like us to take a collective plunge and start collecting and sharing accurate data on audience demographics, including what we used to call “class”. Arts Council England could take a lead by requiring National Portfolio Organisations to do so. Only then will we be able to see how far down the road of mass participation we are – and start to do more to achieve it.

Nick Merriman is the director of Manchester Museum