Signs of Trouble For The Museum Industry (DATA)

Main Hall and Stairs Mational Museum Warsaw

As the US population grows, the number of people attending visitor-serving organizations is (still) in general decline. And this is a very big problem for sustainability without a digital-age shift in our business model.  It’s not just museums. Many visitor-serving organizations – science centers, historical sites, aquariums, zoos, symphonies, etc. – are failing to keep pace with population growth.

Consider: In the five-year duration spanning 2009-2013, the US population increased by 3.5% from 305.5 million to 316.1 million. The majority of this growth occurred in major metropolitan areas – the very population dense regions where many visitor-serving organizations are located. Indeed, nearly one in seven Americans live in the metropolitan areas of the country’s three largest cities – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

However, during the same duration, data indicate that attendance at many nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations has declined. In fact, of the 224 visitor-serving organizations contemplated in the 2014 National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations (NAAU), 186 organizations (83.0%) reported flat or declining attendance. And this is neither a regional nor curatorial content-specific finding – the study representatively contemplates visitor-serving organizations of every size, type, and area.

Many organizations are hesitant to acknowledge attendance challenges…especially when they have historically cited being the “most visited” as an indicator of their expertise and effectiveness. I sense that pressure from governing boards also plays a role – particularly as many organizations have been tasked to maximize earned revenues (often inevitably linked to visitation). Perhaps most concerning of all are attempts to blunt the challenge by proposing half-measures as remedy – you’ll no doubt recognize the “don’t worry, we’re going digital!” excuse and the related practice of sending mid-level staff to innovation conferences as attempted evidence of progress. (This last excuse may be especially worrisome as it seems that many staff members tasked to “innovate” may not actually be empowered to carryout their plans for advancement.)

But, regardless of the excuse, the numbers suggest that our industry risks becoming less relevant to future audiences. What does this mean to visitor-serving organizations? Let’s look at a few examples. (Note: To keep this from being a huge, overwhelming chart, I pulled out major metro markets and a few areas cited as “up and coming.”)

KYOB VSO attendance - IMPACTS

To illustrate, the population of the Atlanta, GA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has increased in the past five years by 9.4%. During the same duration, visitation to the Atlanta-area organizations contemplated in the NAAU study indicates an attendance decline of 4.6%. Think about that – if engagement were keeping pace with population growth, an organization with an annual attendance of 1,000,000 in year 2009 would reasonably expect to welcome 1,094,000 visitors in year 2013. Instead, on average, the studied organizations saw attendance decline from the theoretical 1,000,000 visitor level in year 2009 to 954,000 visitors in year 2013. Measured against the expectations of population growth, visitor engagement underperformed by 140,000 visitors!

The expectation would be for attendance to increase alongside population growth – otherwise, it is indicative of underperforming the opportunity.  Again, the findings are stark and concerning for organizations in the engagement business:

KYOB VSO Performance against expectations - IMPACTS

In most any other business, if you saw the market steadily increasing in size and your product’s usage in steady retreat alongside it, you’d likely think, “This business model sucks.”

Well, our business model sucks.

Confronted with this evidence, I’ve heard leaders recycle tired strategies of securing larger donations from an aging donor base, and plans to gain more grant funding from governments and foundations. Generally, they aim to “pivot” from a reliance on earned revenues to (hopefully…fingers crossed!) additional contributed revenues. Except no. The visitor-serving industry doesn’t need to pivot. It needs to reset.

Here are three behaviors we need to adapt to reset our current condition:


1) Stop citing poor previous efforts as evidence that something will not work

Some visitor-serving organizations will declare that they “already tried” something after investing only the most minimal of resources necessary to claim effort. This is a surefire recipe for failure …yet, it happens all of the time. Here’s a quick example: Many organizations will offer options to buy tickets online and simply invest enough to create a webpage for it. Then when nobody uses that method to buy tickets they say, “Look! We tried that and nobody bought tickets that way!” Actually, nobody bought tickets that way because your site wasn’t mobile friendly, it takes 10 different screens to buy a ticket, it requires several pages of personal information, it’s confusing and time consuming, and it costs more. Often it’s an organization’s own fault when data-informed things don’t work, but organizations frequently take a half (or maybe a one-tenth) approach to something and basically (knowingly or unknowingly) set it up for certain failure. This is just one, basic example.

“Our crummy product failed, ergo everything related to this project won’t work” justifies stagnancy by masking it with false wisdom. Organizations think that they are cutting-edge for trying something without any conviction, and that the wisdom they received from their inevitable failure justifies closing the book on really big things like digital engagement. How does this even make sense? This type of excuse-making is a shortcut to irrelevance. Just stop doing it.


2) Stop defending past decisions

This seems to be a particularly hard one for many leaders to embrace. After all, it may be human nature to defend one’s past decisions as “right” and “good.” And, at the time when they were made, they probably were. But times change. Today, we are witnessing incredible changes – many borne of technological advancement – accelerating progress at a revolutionary pace. By what rightful reason do we think that we’re exempted from the prevailing changes affecting the rest of the world?

Just because you spent thousands and thousands of dollars on print material doesn’t spare you from the necessity of hiring an online community manager. On a more substantial investment scale, those millions of dollars that you invested in a new entrance to facilitate faster put-through times doesn’t exempt you from developing a mobile ticketing platform that may make ticket counters increasingly obsolete. This is a lesson to learn in real-time (as opposed to retrospectively): Repairing and updating past decisions is often more time-consuming and, ultimately, more expensive in the long run than starting anew. It’s OK – heck, even encouraged – to approach the current condition untethered to the past. That was then, this is now.


3) Embrace the inevitable path of progress

Max Anderson, CEO of the Dallas Museum of Art, gave a short ignite talk at the most recent Museum Computer Network conference. The topic of his talk was how to “persuade your museum director to help you” (i.e. how to get him/her to invest in “innovation”). From the beginning of the video it’s easy to see one of the biggest, most glaring problems in our industry: He begins his talk by asking how many museum directors are at the conference. Very short awkward silence ensues…followed by laughter. Really?! Are even our conferences about innovation and new ideas attended primarily by middle managers?!

The reason for the lack of executive decision-makers at many conferences is not necessarily the fault of museum CEOs (as the conferences aren’t always adequately geared toward Directors). But it’s not wholly the task of middle managers to communicate and justify the imperative to remain relevant to CEOs either. There’s a messed up barrier to betterment here, and it has more to do with a flawed structure than simple lexicon within an antiquated museum hierarchy. His talk is absolutely true, probably staggeringly helpful, and thus amazingly messed up at the same time.

We’ve developed this detrimental idea that “digital” has to do with “tech” (not people), and “innovation” isn’t necessary for survival. Max Anderson’s “primer on the psychology of museum directors” underscores that the status quo (and, of course, legacy!) is what museum directors are primarily interested in…but the status quo isn’t working to bring in more people by creating crowds OR buzz. Efforts to abide the current condition fundamentally ignore the challenges imposed by a broken model. Changing lexicon is a pivot. Pivots sound pretty. Pivots sound agile. After pivoting, however, you may be facing in a different direction but you’re still standing in the same place.

Millennials – the largest generation in human history – may necessitate an update to the visitor-serving model in the information age. These “kids” will soon have kids, who will eventually have more kids, and if we continue to ignore the reality of negative substitution in our attendance, then we may soon have no museums, aquariums, or symphonies for those “kids” to go to at all. (OK – perhaps some hyperbole. We likely won’t have zero museums. Just more empty ones.)


The forces of change that propel the world forward are not going away. If we don’t change our model to one that is more sustainable, then we risk going away. This is a moment when our biggest barrier to engaging emerging audiences is holding dear to our increasingly irrelevant plans and practices. We need a reset. And it’s up to all of us to put our heads together and make it happen.


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 11 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

11 Responses to Signs of Trouble For The Museum Industry (DATA)

  1. Kate Wafer

    Hi Colleen
    I heard you speak at the Museum Next conference earlier this year and have been following your blog with interest. I wanted to test something with you. Do you think there’s a place for heritage attractions that make themselves into a ‘no digital’ zone as a positive benefit? I’m working with an very small Arts and Crafts house in a rural location in England where wifi is almost impossible to get (even a standard phone line can be tricky). The place is all about tranquillity and being inspired by the past and nature. The owner (William Morris) was a really a rejector of technology and we want to reflect his ethos in the experience of the place. Is this just coping out or do you think this could be a positive brand attribute?

  2. SH

    I’ve been attending a certain small museum monthly for years and I’m about to stop. It’s always dead-empty inside, and you know what the problem is?

    The art. Just that.

    The collections are always arcane and disturbing — lackluster photographs of dead birds, large, looping videos of people endlessly farming dirt. It’s consistently a barren, depressing experience. Nothing wry or beautiful to balance it. Why would I tell my friends to check it out? I sure wouldn’t bring children there.

    I’m not saying that museums need to make us laugh or smile all the time, but if I keep feeling awful inside every time I visit, well, there’s plenty of inspirational art on Pinterest to look at instead.

    Just something for curators to keep in mind.

  3. Mel

    Colleen, great thought provoking post, as usual. What explains the gap in pop growth vs. visitation growth/decline? What population segments are growing but not going to cultural institutions? My guess, based on your examples, is that millenials are growing but institutions don’t have solutions/content for them/not relevant. Or is it multi-cultural audiences that explain the gap?

  4. Jennifer Van Haaften

    I am lucky that I have a direct supervisor wanting to innovate, but we are under an umbrella organization that may suffer from much of what you point out. I just spent a week at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Much more guest oriented, which I think is where all VSOs should be, using all the tools we have at our fingertips to create great experiences from before visiting and purchasing tickets on-line to the end of their stay where they connect with us on Facebook, through TripAdvisor and other on-line media. IAAPA just seems to do this better. In the end, we’re all competing for leisure time, so we should learn from the masters in the leisure industry.

  5. Joseph Gonzales

    Great analysis and conversation starter Colleen. You touch on some very critical points. I particularly like the “we tried that once and it didn’t work” example. It is so frustrating to hear that in meetings. It is also a handy mechanism for stifling innovation or conversations in areas that are outside of the old guard’s comfort zone. I think another salient point to examine is that a good deal of the growth in metropolitan centers is due to an influx of immigrants (along with higher birth rates) and members of the most mobile generation ever. You addressed the issue of mobile and savvy Millenials, but museums are also woefully behind the game in reaching new audiences/markets and historically neglected markets/audiences. Museums have dedicated generations of effort attending to and learning core audiences, but invested very little in the resources and infrastructure needed to create similar relationships with and knowledge of new or nontraditional audiences. Now, many want quick solutions and returns in reaching new audiences without considering how much they have invested in cultivating a kind of audience that is increasingly less representative of the nation. In addition to your fine points, museum leaders have to, have to recognize that success hinges on big changes, investmests, and commitments in order to succeed. It is not equitable nor is it an effective business strategy to think you can solve the issue over night, after you’ve aligned your institution on mainstream models for generations. Many of our leaders do not have the bravery, vision, or human capital on hand to undertake the processes necessary to set themselves up for success. I am hopeful and frustrated. Clearly I appreciate what you’ve put your finger on here.

  6. Mark

    Challenging as always Colleen, the museum sector does need tough love to realise the urgency of change being necessary, always. What’s your view on allowing digital engagement to begin being included on visitor numbers? A good experience like Google Art can engage me for much longer than visiting sometimes due to comfort, my time and no crowds. I know the benefits of seeing the real òbject, but upcoming generations who are this growth in population are going to want to engage with heritage in different ways. How can we account for that?

  7. Small Museum Director

    The vast majority of museums are small institutions will fewer than 10 staff. I know from experience that most (not all) small museum directors are more than willing to engage audiences in new ways. We know that this is a matter of survival. Unfortunately, insufficient resources often make it challenging to obtain useful market data or to implement our most innovative ideas. We also are fighting against larger social trends and government policies that are beyond our control. For example, it hurts us tremendously when local history is removed from standardized K-12 curriculum. We no longer get school groups and students are no longer encouraged to develop an interest in local history.

    This kind of discussion needs to include museums of all types and sizes. Far too often, only large institutions in big cities are mentioned. Frankly, I believe that the lack of focus on small museums (again, the vast majority of museums) is another sign of trouble for the museum field.

  8. Steve Massi

    Colleen, did you look at population growth by any age segments?

  9. Kevin

    How do the changing demographics of the U.S. population affect this? Are museums relevant to new and growing Latino, East Asian, and African immigrants? Without working to address the relevancy issue to emerging communities, seeking millennials.going digital is only part of a solution.

  10. Adrianne Russell

    I was there during Max Anderson’s Ignite talk and I noted the silence after his museum director shout-out and the laughter that followed too. What may not have been evident on the video were the weary “so what else is new?” looks shared between many people in the audience.

    It’s very rare to see a large number of museum directors at digital/tech conferences and that’s more than a shame.

    Conferences like MCN’s annual gathering appeal to me because of their interdisciplinary and cross-departmental nature. The opportunity to acquire multiple tools to engage and energize all stakeholders in support of digitizing an organization are too valuable to pass up. So while Max’s talk was accurate and cheeky it was extremely frustrating. I agree with you that it’s past time for a reset.

  11. Nancy Sabin

    Thank you for your spot-on comments re: key issues that affect many nonprofits, not just the visitor-serving orgs and museums. However, another key factor that rarely gets included in challenges like those you’ve mentioned in “Embrace the inevitable path of progress” is the “broken” nonprofit board model. For example, with the near-constant turn-over in directors, who are rarely oriented well and who mostly hail from the for-profit sector with minimal understanding of the the difference between governance versus management, the decision-making or problem-solving strategies may/can negatively impact the nonprofit.

    Similarly, these well-intentioned directors rarely understand how critical it is to align their problem-solving strategies to the NONPROFIT BIZ model and effective decision-making…instead of the for-profit biz model that most of them naturally gravitate toward. As a commonly overlooked or uncomfortable root cause that begs for quality conversations, this same scenario often contributes to “unnecessary churn and quick-exit staff”, which surely results in misuse of donor dollars. I encourage you to take some of the above into thought for your future articles!


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