As cultural institutions hear more and think concretely about “broadening participation,” the mechanisms used to understand audiences become quite critical. How do our organizations work to better understand our visitors, and what is the context in which this information helps us make decisions? Discussion can focus on theories of action, measurements/tools for understanding audiences, or discussing the (field-wide) need for broadening participation.

As one concrete example, COVES provides many American science centers with a systematic method for collecting audience-level data, enabling a language of common data points to discuss visitors and their experiences, which can then be used to discuss broadening participation within and across institutions. We have brainstormed dialog sessions between senior personnel at participating institutions to see where opportunities for growth exist, and have created an online dashboard tool for easy dissemination of visitor demographics, visitation patterns, motivations for visit, and ratings of their experience.

The tools and resources for evaluation capacity building offered by COVES make a compelling case for its value to the field. I'm curious to know the range of participants and currently how the community is distributed between large, medium, and small museums nationwide? 

Currently, COVES has 20 active participants, which you can view here:

Using exhibit space, operating budget, and attendance as criteria for size of institution, these 20 are composed of 8 small science centers, 6 medium science centers, and 6 large institutions. For context, our smallest partner has an attendance of less than 10,000 visitors annually and an operating budget of roughly $250,000 USD; our largest partner sees over 1.3 million visitors each year and has an operating budget of $50,000,000 USD - so we have a considerable range of institutional sizes in our collaboration!

COVES is a great model, Ryan. I also think there is no substitute for deep, long-term, authentic relationships with community-based organizations. Staff members from these groups have intimate knowledge of their communities and have developed deep trust with audiences that may not currently see informal learning institutions as welcoming, inclusive, relevant, or accessible.