South West Museum Development (SWMD) are a team of industry professionals hosted by Bristol City Council and funded by Arts Council England and over 20 Local Authorities across the South West of England.

Each year, they use their expertise in audience and museum operational data to run an Annual Museum Survey across England, involving over 1,000 museums from nine museum development regions.

The survey digs into core data on workforce, finance, audiences and insights related to the size, locality and governance of the museum regionally and nationally. It’s a massive undertaking that helps to understand the social and economic value of museums in England.

The results also help museums benchmark their work, advocate for their purpose and find areas for improvement. It’s important work that goes a long way towards keeping museums open for us all to enjoy. 

Never one to rest on their laurels, the team at SWMD wanted to get even more from the annual survey and the insights it generates. We were more than happy to help.

Our role

●      Quantitative research and analysis

●      Qualitative research and analysis

●      Survey design

●      Reporting

Why PS Research?

South West Museum Development are brilliant at what they do. They have sector knowledge and a strong survey process. The Annual Museum Survey is well established, with good response rates and high engagement every year.

So why call upon a couple of northern researchers?

Because it helps to add specialist skills and a fresh perspective.

Based on previous work Adam had done during an Arts Council England review of the Annual Museum Survey, SWMD recognised that PS Research could bring analysis expertise and access to industry software to add value to value.

They also understood that as a company of two, we could become an extension of the team. And they made us feel exactly that, involving us in weekly meetings and staying in regular contact. To our end, we made sure we were always available whenever needed, over Zoom or Teams and at the other end of the phone. 

When you’re embedded in the project, you become invested in the outcome. We’re proud to have played a part in making the last few Annual Museum Surveys the best they can be.

It’s all in the details

For a survey to produce reliable results and make a difference, you need a solid sample to work with.

We work closely with the team’s programme manager and research assistant on the methodology (the what, why and how) and sampling (the who) to make sure the small details are right to achieve this.

This helps give an accurate picture of the museum and heritage sector’s visitor numbers, workforce, volunteers and more, including area-based information such as levels of deprivation. 

In the most recent completed survey in 2021, these details extended to deciding the best approach for understanding the impact of the pandemic — how it affected staff, finances, opening hours, visitor numbers, digital experience and more. 

Image of an infographic about the impact of the pandemic

Getting this right is important for advocating funding and government investment, but also to help museums see how they compare against regional and national benchmarks. 

Asking the right questions, in the right way

Sometimes, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

The team has the survey process down, so getting people to engage in the Annual Museum Survey isn’t a problem.

One of the ways we could help was working with them to look at how survey design could be even stronger, whether it was coming up with ways to restructure questions or capture data in a different way.

The nature of this large-scale survey is that it can be number-heavy. In an ideal world, we’d capture actual data on everything from visitor numbers to workforce to finances, but that’s not always realistic. Sometimes, it’s hard for participants to find concrete figures.

There are some areas of the survey where we can give banded options instead (e.g. fewer than 1,000; 1,000 to 5,000, etc.) to increase the amount of data we have to work with.

A lot of thought was also put into how to get more from our open-ended survey questions. This was where Emma’s qualitative expertise came into its own.

Emma advised on ways we could ask open-ended questions using projective techniques, such as “Complete the sentence…” or “If you could change one thing…”. This not only helped make questions meaningful to respondents, it also gave enough structure so we could do more with the comments for analysis and reporting.

Emma's skills were vital in helping tell the stories behind the numbers. By developing a coding frame of key themes and assigning each comment to these codes, she helped quantify open feedback to understand key issues.

By pulling quotes from the qualitative data, we were able to soften a data-heavy report and tell a stronger story about the challenges some museums face in their own words.

Image of a page from a research report with qualitative feedback

Strengthening the analysis

One of the advantages of bringing in outside research expertise is access to new methods and tools. We’re able to introduce new meaning to data in a number of different ways:

●      Weighting data to improve accuracy

●      Building new variables (whether that’s simplifying categories or combining two questions into one)

●      Running postcode lookups against other data sources (e.g. deprivation levels, whether an area is urban or rural)

●      Exploring means, medians and ranges

●      Looking at year-on-year percentage change

This all helped to give a clearer view of performance and value by different types and sizes of museums, and in different areas.

Doing the data justice

As much as we love getting hands-on with raw data in spreadsheets, it doesn’t make for good reading. Data tables and storytelling don’t mix well.

To bring meaning to the data, we worked with the team to design reports that make it easy for the reader to understand numbers and stories.

Colour-coded and interactive charts, relevant icons and concise copy were used to help museums, regional leads, funding bodies and government stakeholders quickly see the full picture and pick out relevant information.

Image of some charts from a report

This all means that explaining findings becomes much simpler for different stakeholders. They can use the reports with confidence to start discussions and better support the museums they work with.

Always learning

The report isn’t the end of our support though. The Annual Museum Survey continues to develop and evolve. Each year is an opportunity to identify areas for improvement and what we can all do to make it that little bit better.

For the last two years, once all the reports have been finalised and shared, Adam and the team have run a series of sessions with regional leads to reflect on the process and start a discussion about what we could do differently for the next survey.

See our work with the Museum Development Network in all its glory. Take a look at the 2021 Annual Museum Survey report on the South West Museum Development website

We have really benefited from working with PS Research. Not only do Adam and Emma bring specialist expertise and experience, they have a collaborative approach which has made the whole process better and more enjoyable.

Victoria Harding

Programme Manager, South West Museum Development

Need some expert researchers to bring new ideas to your project?