Consult non-visitors as well as visitors

Laura Crossley, Issue 114/12, p14, 01.12.2014
What do visitors really think about our museum, gallery or heritage site? It is one of the key questions that we need to answer to run a successful venue.

Ahead of our Museums Association conference session, Perceptions and Prejudice: Separating Fact from Fiction, Christina Lister, a cultural sector PR and communications specialist, and I undertook a survey with museum professionals.

We explored how museums are carrying out audience consultation and the implications this might have for museum practice. Sixty-five people responded – more than half of whom were from small and medium-sized museums.

It was encouraging to learn that, despite the current financial climate and associated squeeze on resources, most respondents had undertaken visitor research in the past year.

However, the survey found that museums relied heavily on visitor comment books and exit surveys as a means to collect audience feedback. Although these consultation methods are fairly low cost and can yield useful data, it is important to acknowledge that they are also flawed.

Comments books tell us little about how a visitor has engaged with a museum and the impact of the visit. Comments such as “excellent” or “wonderful” might be great to receive but do not provide insights that might lead to refreshed museum practice.

In addition, I wonder how many comments books are analysed and how many are consigned to the comments book graveyard – aka a desk drawer – never to be seen again.

Creative evaluation methods provide a low-cost alternative to comments books and support the collection of useful and more focused data. Museums could set up a graffiti wall, for example, that asks visitors to write or draw their answer to a specific question, such as: “What did you learn today?”

Voting boxes – which require visitors to place a button or bead into one of several see-through jars to show their answer to a question – are also useful. Further examples of creative consultation methods can be found in the excellent evaluation toolkit for museum practitioners on the Share Museums East website.

Exit surveys allow for the collection of more meaningful data but may not be representative of visitors’ views, as survey participants are self-selecting and may not be representative of the visitor base as a whole.

To help prevent bias, it is useful to select random participants – for example, every fifth person, or the person in a group whose birthday is next.

Surveying a relatively large number of people (at least 100) to ensure the data is as representative as possible is also important. Remember that survey results can deviate from the “true” result that might have been obtained if every visitor had been surveyed.

An issue with both methods of consultation is that they collect data only from visitors and miss out non-visitors. By seeking data only from visitors, museums are doing nothing to address barriers that may be preventing people from visiting.

Collecting data from non-visitors need not be costly or time-consuming. This could be done through a free online survey that could be promoted through social media, partners, and media and community groups, for example.

Museums are increasingly considering how to become more democratic by becoming more participatory. I would argue that consulting with a diverse range of visitors and non-visitors, and carrying out robust consultation that leads to reflection on, and change of, museum practice, is a first step in trying to achieve this.

Laura Crossley is a museum consultant

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