The July/August 2017 issue of Museum, the magazine of the American Alliance of Museums, features articles on engaging families, veterans, and LGBTQ audiences and my general article, “A Visitor’s Perspective on Visitor Engagement”. It introduces three major factors that influence visitor engagement at museums: convenience, novelty, and values. I had a limited space so I’d like to share a bit more information about the influence of convenience, the idea that the more convenient it is to visit a museum, the more likely that people will visit. It’s not just about living close by but also other effects, such as traffic, roadway patterns, museum hours of operation, finding a place to park, and ease of purchasing tickets. Nevertheless, distance is a major factor and you can see it through mapping.
In my article I referenced a couple of my clients—Cliveden (Philadelphia) and Caramoor (Katonah, New York)—and described the differences in their program participants or supporters. Below I’m showing these differences through maps created in ArcGIS. Each red dot represents a household and for Cliveden, the map shows that the majority of their supporters live within a 30-minute drive of the site. For Caramoor, the map shows that the majority also live within 30 minutes but there is a significant number who live within 45 minutes to the south (and very few to the north). As you can see, the distance of the audience varies (in other words, the meaning of “convenience” varies). Every place is different and you have to analyze your own data to fully understand it. As I mention in my article, convenience is also affected by novelty and values, which might explain the clustering.
This type of mapping also pokes a big hole in one of the most common refrains I hear at museums: “we get visitors from every state in the nation.” Unless that’s your engagement goal, it’s a nonsensical recognition of success. First of all, it’s more likely that a site’s visitors are local, not national, so they’re overlooking the obvious audience for repeat visitation and support. By mapping your visitors and supporters, you can make better decisions about promotion, programming, and fundraising. Secondly, this statement creates a false sense of success. It’s been said numerous times that attendance shouldn’t be the only measure of success and yet it often is. More important is the impact that the history of your site has had on the people who visit. If the significance of your site is insignificant to the people who visit, perhaps it’s time to rethink your purpose and goals.