Creating a Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies

Benefits and challenges of collaborating  Day 1

November 19th, 2014

Although many science centers currently have audience-focused data efforts in place, the majority of these are isolated to individual organizations with limited capability for sharing findings across sites. Through Creating a Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies (C-COVES)–an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)-funded project–project leaders hoped to determine the feasibility of forming a system to support organizations in systematically collecting data from visitors in a way that would enable each organization to make use of these data to inform institutional decision-making, while also allowing for cross-organizational sharing of findings to inform the broader field.

The need for this type of system stemmed from an internal, ongoing study at the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS), and the desire to collaborate with other science centers to both improve our existing work, as well as move the field toward a more-informed understanding of what happens during visits to science centers. Initially partnering with a core group of representatives from Science Museum of Minnesota, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, New York Hall of Science, and the Association of Science-Technology Centers, this core team researched existing models from other fields and interviewed many individuals within informal science arenas currently conducting multi-institutional data-centered efforts. This work culminated in a forum hosted by MOS in August of 2013, in which the C-COVES team brought together 27 museum professionals from 11 science centers ranging in size, community context, and evaluation capacity, as well as three industry-leading organizations, to elaborate on the various objectives, outcomes, and potential pitfalls of a collaborative endeavor such as this. Over two days, these individuals contributed thoughts informed by diverse experiences and expert opinions, and eventually reached the consensus that this type of collective data effort was not only worthwhile for participating institutions, but necessary for the science center field as a whole.

The results of the forum are broadly outlined in the resulting C-COVES White Paper. Agreement was reached that the system, first and foremost, needed to be driven by a clear vision shared by a trustworthy group to safeguard the interests of participating institutions, the audience being surveyed, and the broader field. Additionally, emphasis was placed on the evaluation capacity building nature of this work, building capacity where it currently doesn’t exist by leveraging it where it does. Lastly, it was agreed that one of the strengths of a collaborative system like this one would be the ability to help individual institutions make sense of the gathered evidence to strategically inform decision making, while also helping to inform the field of science centers as a whole. As such, the four elements of this system that will provide for the aforementioned outcomes relate to decision making, questions and measures, methods and data collection, and data analysis and sense making, all further elaborated in the White Paper.

The project is now moving from collective thought to collective action. No longer in the “creation” phase, we are working on a Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies (COVES), and have once again received funding from IMLS in the form of a three-year National Leadership Grant to build the system, pilot the process, and expand our vision and our efforts. With a Governing Body set to convene in December 2014 to begin detailing the system’s decision-making structure and 10 participating institutions signed on to be a part of the early data collection efforts, our goal is to make COVES a sustainable network of science centers beyond the three-year grant period. If you are interested in learning more, we encourage you to read the White Paper and become involved! Contact Ryan Auster ( or Michelle Kenner ( for more information and to stay informed as COVES moves forward.