Quantitatively and Qualitatively Measuring the Museum

Posted on December 15, 2017 by

This edition of Performance Counts is brought to you by JMM Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE. Read past editions of Performance Counts by clicking HERE.


This question has become a driver at decision points for organizations and individuals. It is an important question, and also one that is not always as straightforward as the asker might assume. Simply counting your steps gives you data, but not a complete picture. How do your step counts compare to other people’s? Where did your steps take you? If 60% of them led to the freezer for more ice cream, surely they are not the same health value as non-ice-cream-related steps, right?

Still, data has a lot to teach us, and finding ways to measure ourselves—whether as individuals or as organizations—is both a challenge and an opportunity. At JMM we have been digging into that opportunity in recent weeks and months. For this Performance Counts, I’d like to share with you some of the story our data is revealing, as well as some of our ongoing opportunities and challenges in data collection.


The first and most obvious measure of the Museum’s performance is our visitor attendance numbers. They are the building blocks of our health as an institution. Recently, I’ve been looking more closely at our attendance numbers, over the past several fiscal years. Our highest-attendance month was March of 2017 when we opened Remembering Auschwitz. We welcomed more than 1600 visitors that month. Our lowest attendance month in the past 3 fiscal years was September, 2015, with only 113 visitors. Not only was the decline in tourism after the Uprising still in effect, our changing gallery was closed as we de-installed Cinema Judaica and installed Paul Simon. September 2015 also contained Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, so we also had fewer days open to the public than the average month.

In terms of trends, the numbers more-or-less confirm what we suspected (see the graph below for a visual representation):

>Attendance is dependent upon the exhibit we have on view in the changing gallery, with all of our lowest-attendance months corresponding to months the gallery was in transition and therefore closed to the public.

>Some exhibits are more popular than others (up to 230% in a given month, year over year)

>When an exhibit starts with low attendance, it is difficult to increase momentum.

Attendance by Month

In addition to actual visitor attendance, we count virtual visits. Did you know you can search the collections from our website? Not everything is available through the online search, but a whole lot is, and thanks to the work of our dedicated volunteers, we’re constantly adding new items to what is searchable. (This morning I searched for “Baltimore” and received 20709 results!) On average, 188 people search the collections online in a given month, and they spend an average of 8.51 minutes per session with our collections. Nine minutes may not sound very long, but according to google, the average session duration for traffic coming from Google organic search is around 50 seconds.


Attendance numbers alone can’t show the quality of the experience of the people who do attend, whether 113 of them or more than 1600. To attempt to measure that experience, we have or are embarking on several studies. Starting with Remembering Auschwitz we administer surveys to visitors to our public programs. So far we’re seeing positive numbers. For programs associated with Remembering Auschwitz, 82% of those surveyed agreed that they “learned something new” from their visit, and 83% told us “my appreciation for the topic increased.”  We continue to administer the survey to visitors who are willing to take it.

Additionally, we always survey educators when they bring field trips to our museum. Educators consistently score us 5 out 5 on several quality measures, including quality of program and staff. The one place we aren’t consistently receiving perfect scores is for our pre- and post-visit materials. To address it, we’re hoping to develop a new survey that will help us understand what improvements we can make to better serve our colleagues in the classroom.


Another measure of the quality of a museum visit is its memorability. Marvin often tells the story of museum guru, John Falk, who was challenged at a lecture by a  teacher that field trips were too expensive and simply didn’t provide enough return on investment. John invited this colleague to remember a museum field trip that he had taken as a child. The teacher provided a detailed description of a grade school trip to the Museum of Science and Industry (another of Marvin’s alma maters), and his journey into the Coal Mine exhibit there. John then asked what the man had learned in school the day after the field trip, or the next week?, or that month? As you might imagine, the story of classroom learning was not nearly as forthcoming.

Marvin’s qualitative anecdote is something we’re hoping to capture quantitatively with a memorability study. We’re collecting visitor contacts, and then surveying them about their experience here at least three months later. We’ll be asking questions like: “as a result of your visit to JMM, do you remember…having a conversation about what you saw? …searching for information on the internet? …thinking about what you saw after the date of the visit?” The first wave of surveys is scheduled to start this week, and we are currently collecting contact information for a second wave to happen in March. I, for one, am excited to have some quantitative data about our qualitative effect!

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