How audience research helped shape the Brunel Museum Reinvented Project - Museums Association

How audience research helped shape the Brunel Museum Reinvented Project

Katherine McAlpine shares how it is reaching new and existing visitors
Audiences Redevelopment

At the heart of the three-year lottery-funded Brunel Museum Reinvented project is a strong desire to make sure we are meeting the needs of the communities around us. And to do that, we need to understand who those people are and what they want from us.

This means that during the development stage of the project we undertook some research into who are audiences are and could be, and what they want to see from the museum.

We started by looking at what we already knew about our audiences. A two-week survey at the museum in April and May 2018 identified visitors as:

  • 84% male
  • 98% white
  • 85% aged 60 years or above
  • 90% were Brunel enthusiasts or retired engineers
  • Three quarters were from outside London.

While surveys like this don’t tell you about everyone who visits (just those who were there on the day), they give a strong indication of the kinds of people who regularly visit the museum.

Almost one in five people in the borough of Southwark is aged under 15. If you start to consider all the parents, grandparents, older siblings, aunts and uncles of those related to those under 15s, that’s a lot of people that we’re not necessarily serving.


This helped us identify our target audiences for the project:

  • Families
  • Primary school age children
  • Local community
  • Girls under the age of 15 who are interested in a career in engineering

Once we’d identified our audiences, we wanted to make sure we were asking people from these groups what they want to see at the museum.

The Covid pandemic made it difficult, but we made it work. We ran an online survey, followed up with telephone interviews and used social media for the first time to run polls.

When we could go out again, we made an effort to reach people where they were to ensure we’re meeting both non-visitors and underserved visitors, so we ran a number of consultation events at various locations in the borough such as Surrey Quays shopping centre and New Cross Gate Trust under-5s session.

We also ran a session at the museum for Open House Day in September 2020 with the architects. This session gave us loads of useful feedback that fed directly into the design of the new Welcome Pavilion, including making it much smaller in size.

Continuing to listen

In June 2022, we received the good news that we’d secured £1.85m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Listening to people continues to be at the heart of how we operate at the Brunel Museum, so below I wanted to share some of the ways we continue to ask people's opinions about the future direction of the museum.

Post-visit surveys are the main way we gather information, so if you've ever booked to visit the museum you'll have received an email from us asking us to respond to a quick (under five minutes) survey. If you have one of those emails in your inbox and you haven't replied, stop reading and go and fill it out immediately!

Phew! Thanks for coming back. The post-visit surveys are great for capturing demographic data so we can know if we're reaching the people we want to with our activity. But to ensure we’re meeting these audiences, we need to ask qualitative questions. In our post visit survey we ask: “what one thing would have improved your visit?”

Sometimes people write things like “nothing at all”, which is lovely for us but not great for an audience researcher like me. I want to know how we can improve!

The post visit survey is great but it’s not perfect. We can only ask people we have information for, which means we’re currently only collecting data for those people who booked. During the pandemic, that was everyone, but now only about 10% of visitors book ahead of their visit so we’re looking at ways to embed surveys as part of the experience.


If you’ve just visited and are ready to leave, the last thing you want to do is do a survey. We try and keep ours short, but there’s a lot of stuff we and our funders want to know. So we’re looking at ways we can embed that evaluation in the museum itself.

During the next stage of the project we’ll be running our Museum on Tourprogramme to reach people who don’t already visit. We’ll be taking the museum out into various locations in the local community to ask people their views on the next stage of the redisplay of the Brunel Museum collection.

If you’d like to share your views about the Brunel Museum Reinvented project, please join us on Sunday 15 January for our next Community Open Day 

Katherine McAlpine is the director of the Brunel Museum  

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