Quantifiable Missions: The American Association of Museums’ Surveys and Their Effects

Meredith Goldsmith

Ph.D. Candidate at U.C. Irvine

Introduction: A System of Inquiry, Interpretation and Funding

In 1968, leaders of American museums articulated a problem: donations and traditional sources of revenue had flattened, while insurance and facility costs were rising, yet museum attendance had more than doubled – especially among children on school trips. More government funds were needed in museums, including grants and income tax exemptions designated for educational organizations. Because such awards would need to be tied to “quality” institutions, and “there presently exist no standards against which the all around excellence of individual museums might be measured,” they wrote, “the profession should be strongly urged to establish such standards throughout the museum field.” [1]

This call to action issued by the American Association of Museums (AAM) – the professional organization and chief advocacy group for museums – would lead to an escalating project of surveys on museum finances, salaries, personnel, education programs, and visitor demographics. [2] In addition to producing handbooks on a code of ethics and standards of museum practices, the AAM used and published wide-ranging surveys to attempt to homogenize some aspects of the nation’s veritable museums and as part of the accreditation program they established in 1971. The professionalization of museum workers between the 1960s and 1990s was intertwined with the simultaneous explosion of museum and visitor statistics collection, interpretation and reporting.

Quantitative and qualitative information has been offered to government and philanthropic funding agencies as proof of professionalism, civic value, educational effectiveness, and ethnic diversity. Just as often, the AAM survey questions enforced historically specific standards of museum practice – they ask museums about themselves in a way that informs them what they should be doing and to what they should aspire. Ultimately, the AAM’s efforts to quantify, certify, and present statistics on museums’ “excellence” are tied to—and reinforce—systems of government and private funding. These systems of inquiry, and the interpretive discourse produced, have shaped our museums as much as they have reflected them.

My Hypothesis

Examining the AAM surveys reveals a shift over time from emphasizing professional standards and scholarship, to education, to public service, and then multiculturalism. Most significantly, the terms of these emphases are usually quantifiable. My hypothesis was that, first, I would be able to see the collection of statistical information become increasingly important in one case-study museum, and, second, that I would be able to trace a congruent shift in the archive of that case-study museum, also understood in terms of quantifiable data. Since I am living in Houston, Texas, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) served as my museum case study. [3] The remainder of this article is a summary of the AAM’s published statistical reports, my findings at the MFAH archives, and conclusions drawn about the implications of statistical data as the proof and measure of museums’ impact and worth.

“Museums Count”

The AAM began publishing basic information about our nation’s museums in 1924, and the first statistical survey of attendance in 1930. [4] Historian Neil Harris distinguishes these early efforts from the 1960s, when, “the museum adopted what can only be termed a populist preoccupation,” complemented by the establishment of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in 1966.[5] The vitality of art museums was understood by the Federal government to be significant to the ideology of the Cold War, as well as urban renewal efforts. “The new funders professed admiration for social science research into market services,” Harris writes, “and many museums joined in.” [6]

The AAM’s statistical survey reports played an important role in bringing the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to this way of thinking. After a long drought, in 1965 they published the first statistical survey of 3,443 American museums, which revealed such facts and figures as attendance to art museums doubling between 1952 and 1962, and providing education programs to over eleven million children and adults, yet less than 1% of funding coming from the Federal government. The authors deduce that this lack of support is the result of, principally, “a failure to recognize the educational role of the museum,” and “the low salaries prevailing in most museums, with the consequent difficulty in attracting able and well-trained people into the field.” [7]

Reports on the statistical survey of museum salaries and financial compositions followed in 1971 and 1973, allowing museums and museum workers across the country to compare their compensation rates with almost 800 institutions reporting. [8,9] With numbers to back up their contribution to the enlightenment of Americans, as well as the numbers to argue for size, constitution and salaries of staff comparable to peer institutions, museums could justify their increasing budgets and the AAM could lobby for more government support.

Two studies attempting to quantify the work and worth of museums by groups other than the AAM deserve mention here, too. In 1974 the National Endowment for the Arts compiled information about 1,200 museums in Museums USA, and in 1979 the Institute of Museum Services created the Museum Universe Survey, which provided the most complete count of museums to date and produced data on their distribution by size, region, annual budget, and visitors. Reflecting on these efforts toward complete data collection in an ambitious report titled Museums for a New Century, the AAM recommended “a permanent mechanism for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data about museums – their numbers and locations, their facilities and finances, their personnel and trustees, their activities and attendance.” [10] Elsewhere they argue that this “quantitative and qualitative data,” and “a profile of the museum profession,” would be valuable “in describing the characteristics and needs of museums to the public, the media and public and private funding sources.” [11]

They gained on this goal in 1989, when the AAM sponsored the National Museum Survey. A selection of the statistics gathered were interpreted and presented three years later in the AAM publication: Museums Count. [12] It is instructive to compare certain figures to the survey report from 1965. They note that of 8,200 total museums, about half were founded in the ‘60s and ‘70s; in addition to about 150,000 full and part time employees, museums utilize 380,000 volunteers – museums would not function without this unpaid labor; of total income to all museums, two-fifths came from government sources by this time, and 41% of that was from the federal government, while 20% and 34% came from state and local government respectively.

Since this 1989 survey, the AAM has collected quantitative and qualitative data from museums regularly, with increasing attention to demographics. The 1992 publication Excellence and Equity drew from this research. Not a statistical survey, this was a call to make public service and ethnic and cultural diversity central to their practice and identity as museum professionals. To this end, the authors urged museums to, “Require that trustees and staff achieve an active understanding of the political, social, economic, and demographic characteristics of the museum’s current and potential communities,” and, “Assure that the interpretive process manifests a variety in cultural and intellectual perspectives and reflects an appreciation for the diversity of the museums’ public.” [13] The use of quantitative data was so established by this point that keeping count of the racialized bodies of visitors, staff, and trustees throughout the 1990s was a logical metric.

Case Study: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

As the organization began its campaign for recognition of professionalism and vital educational function, the AAM looked to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) because of its history as primarily focused on educating the public, over conservation and scholarship. It was founded in 1900 as the Public School Art League, then chartered in 1912 as the Houston Art League, and finally reorganized as the MFAH in 1925, with the School of Art having a significant role in the institution. In 1958, the same year AAM Director Joseph Allen Patterson initiated his lobbying efforts, and the stunning Mies van der Rohe designed Cullinan Hall opened, the MFAH’s Director Lee Malone authored “Looking Ahead,” a document which included, perhaps for the first time, a statistical analysis of the museum’s assets, funds, staff, and membership. The central concern in this memo is elevating the young and expanding community of Houston through “improving the level of cultural interest and taste.” [14] Also important to him is raising the compensation of the School of Art instructors to “adequate levels.” [15]

By 1962, when James Johnson Sweeney had become director, Patterson was reaching out to the MFAH more often, soliciting Sweeney for support. In 1965, the MFAH received its first questionnaire from the AAM as a participant in their study of “the relation of museum art exhibitions to education.” Among the questions sent ahead of the researcher’s site visit were: “What percentage of annual exhibits is focused on educating children? What percentage of the general exhibits do children participate in? What is the nature of exhibits circulated to schools? Are improvements possible?” [16] Although these are questions aimed at assessing the scope and operation of participating museums’ activities for children, the document is also informing museums that they should have such programs, should work with schools and other institutions, and should evaluate them to make them more effective.

According to the AAM rhetoric of the 1960s, in addition to proliferating education in museums, standardizing practices and procedures in museums was key to becoming recognized as professional workers and organizations; it is the difference between being a regional museum with idiosyncrasies and being a museum of the nation. The right ways to do day-to-day tasks in the museum are the most frequent subject of Sweeney’s internal museum memos. This is especially true for his communications with the building superintendent in charge of physical galleries and guards. Sweeney keeps trying to get the man to hold weekly meetings with the guards and then to give him regular reports on those meetings, but Mr. Deer does not know what to talk about with the guards on a weekly basis, nor does he know how to report it. [17] Security against vandalism and theft in museums was a central concern of the AAM in the 1960s as attendance increased (as well as political demonstrations in institutions) and we can see that reflected in this case study.

The document in which the AAM solicits the most information from the MFAH and, in turn, communicates the most about the standards to which they hold museums is the 1975 application for official museum accreditation. [18] Comparing their self-reporting to the published surveys reviewed above allows us to see what kind of effects this information about American museums in general had on this museum in particular. The MFAH appears exceptional in three key areas. Although their Director, Associate Director, Business Officer, Registrar, Superintendent of Building and Grounds, and Curator each earned in the top 25% of the salaries for that position at an art museum – as reported in the 1973 Museum Salary and Financial Survey of 212 art museums – and the Director’s Secretary, Preparator and Associate Curators each earned the median income for this position, the janitors and guards and School of Art full-time teachers each earned salaries in the bottom 25%. As the pay for the teachers was identified as a problem back in the 1958 memo, and the professionalism of the guards was an issue back in the mid-1960s, this may indicate it was a systemic problem. Regarding income for operating expenses, the MFAH reports no Federal or state funding for the 1973-74 fiscal year, including from the Department of Education. The only funding of this kind they list is municipal funds in the amount of $75,000. They add up their total operating expense to over 1.55 million dollars, and a deficit of about $18,000. Grants applied for during the last fiscal year and awarded in early 1975 (pending) were all N.E.A., and all are listed as receiving the full amount requested. The projects funded include: “Museum Purchase Plan,” $10,000; two “Aid to Special Exhibition” projects for about $30,000 each; and one “Special Exhibition Individual Application” for $2,457. No requests to private foundation grants are listed. This stands in contrast to the picture painted by the AAM’s statistical surveys of museum finances. It is uncertain if this is standard for the MFAH – is this evidence of a philosophically libertarian regional culture? Are they ineligible for such funds because they have not yet been accredited? The survey also asks museums to count their visitors; they do. The MFAH reports 92,645 individuals and 23,529 on school group visits.

In 1980, the MFAH established a Department of Art History and Education, and their administrative records show an initial focus on simply counting attendance to classes, lectures and events, and the number of students and teachers served in their programs with the Houston school district and local colleges and universities. These monthly statistic reports indicate precipitous attendance from a few thousand to tens of thousands by 1983, and the counting gets more specific so that the “Gallery Statistics” can be analyzed separately from “Self-Guided” or “Adults,” for instance. In the annual report from this year, the first director of the department argues for a pivot from growing attendance to improving worth. “The achievement of this year’s education program is the result of a consolidated three year effort to build a professional education department on the museum’s prior volunteer touring organization,” she writes. “The challenge ahead is not to increase numbers but to continue to improve the quality of museum classes by preserving a reasonable instructor-student class ratio.” [19] To this end, in 1985 the MFAH launched a Special Needs Docent Training program to improve offerings and access to visitors who were visually, hearing, or physically impaired, as well as the “emotionally disabled” and the “profoundly or multiply disabled.” [20] Also, records show that in 1989 this department at the MFAH turned to an outside expert in data collection to study and report on their Focus Tours. “Who is coming to the tours,” they want to know. They seek information such as:

…age, zip code (residence), educational background, interests, museum member or not, how did they learn about the tour – and, this may not be the right word, attitudinal. Why did they come to the museum? Why did they go on a tour? What were their expectations? Would they come back? [21]

It is not clear from the MFAH archive how this information may have been implemented or used to seek funding. Although the contracted statistical analyst cautions against using this Focus Tours report to make generalizations about the whole visitor population, it seems that this is the first moment in which the museum formally collected statistical data about the social class – employment, education and residence – and ethnicity of their visitors.

The MFAH Department of Art History and Education’s accounting of visitors become more sophisticated and frequent in the 1990s as programs were added, analysis can be finely tuned, and formatting of results becomes easier with computers. In particular they are interested in the percentages of “African American,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” and “Caucasian” participants in their Outreach Programs and Exhibitions in Houston library branches. [19] There is also a document titled “Multi-Ethnic Programs, Audiences, Presenters, Staff…1991-1992 minority presenters/teachers included,” which simply lists names and performing groups under the headings “African Americans,” “Hispanics,” and “Asians.” [23] Such factual accounting can be critical to see how an organization is implementing the value of multiculturalism. But, of course, quantity is not the same as quality, and counting is not the same as listening. When government and foundation funding requires or favors statistical data and the kind of analysis that is only possible through this counting – quality as only discernable through quantities – it incentivizes museum initiatives that can be quantified, and grown in terms of numbers.

Conclusions: Quantifiable Missions

In a sense the AAM’s project to collect, analyze and act upon the statistical data of museums reflected the Federal government’s postwar interest in counting the jobs, demographics, and living conditions of U.S. residents. On the one hand, museum work was just one field among many in the 1960s and 70s with constituents seeking to elevate their jobs into “professions,” and museums were just one more venue of demographic statistical surveys in postwar America. On the other hand, in the context of museums, professionalization and such data collection were linked, resulting in standards such as critical reflexivity and political and social consciousness.

In the case of the MFAH, we can clearly see efforts to professionalize their employees and standardize their practices that maps chronologically and thematically onto the AAM’s movement. We can also see shifts in the MFAH’s focus from legitimizing their educational programs, to broadening their public services, to including people of color in their programming and tracking their patronage – all of these missions, I would argue, were born of statistical data collection and their effectiveness was measured by it, and ultimately ensured through the AAM’s accreditation and re-accreditation processes.

In need of ever-increasing funding, museums like the MFAH were incentivized to collect and report data on visitors’ race and ethnicities, income, education, distance traveled, occupation, etc. While this has produced wonderful audience-responsive exhibitions and programs, scholarship and research – once the primary function of museums – has been underfunded, even negatively cast as elitist. The implications of this are that we are creating valuable audience experiences now and in the near future, but potentially robbing projects that invest in long-term vision.



  1. American Association of Museums and the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, America’s Museums: The Belmont Report (Washington, D.C., 1969): xv.
  2. This body recently changed its name to the American Alliance of Museums, but the material surveyed in this paper was created under the original name of the organization.
  3. The archivists there – Lorraine Stuart and Emily Perkins – were extremely helpful to my experiment, and I thank them.
  4. Victoria Dickenson, “Museum Visitor Surveys: An Overview, 1930-1990,” in Cultural Economics, eds. Ruth Towse and Abdul Khakee (Berlin and New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992), 141.
  5. Neil Harris, “Polling for Opinions,” Museum News, September/October (1990): 50.
  6. Ibid.
  7. American Association of Museums, A Statistical Survey of Museums in the United States and Canada, (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1965), 23.
  8. Kyran M. McGrath, 1971 Financial and Salary Survey, (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1971).
  9. Kyran M. McGrath, 1973 Museum Salary and Financial Survey, (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1973).
  10. American Association of Museums, Museums for a New Century (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1984), 87.
  11. Ibid, 86.
  12. Ann Grogg and the American Association of Museums, Museums Count: A Report by the American Association of Museums, (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1994).
  13. Ellen Cochran Hirzy and the American Association of Museums, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1992): 7.
  14. Lee Malone, “Looking Ahead for The Museum of Fine Arts Houston.” RG02:02:01 Office of the Director, Malone Correspondence and Miscellaneous Subjects 1949-1960, Museum of Fine Arts Archives: 3.
  15. Ibid, 4.
  16. “A Study of the Relation of Museum Art Exhibitions to Education (Outline for Interviews),” enclosed with letter, Joseph Allen Patterson to James Johnson Sweeney. RG02:03:02 Office of the Director, Sweeney Subject Files 1961-1968, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives: 2.
  17. Memoranda from Sweeney. RG02:03:02 Office of the Director, Sweeney Subject Files 1961-1968, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives.
  18. “American Association of Museums: accreditation 1970-79.” RG02:06:03 Office of the Director, Agee Subject Files 1961-1981, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives.
  19. Celeste Adams, “Annual Report,” 1983. RG09:11, Department of Education Administrative Files, 1980-1998, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives.
  20. “Special Needs Visitors” program outline, 1985. RG09:11, Department of Education Administrative Files, 1980-1998, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives.
  21. Letter 09/05/1989, Beth Schneider to Randi Korn. RG09:11, Department of Education Administrative Files, 1980-1998, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives.
  22. “Statistics, 1991-1992.” RG09:11, Department of Education Administrative Files, 1980-1998, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives.
  23. “Multi-Ethnic Programs, Audiences, Presenters, Staff. 1991-1992 minority presenters/teachers included.” RG09:11, Department of Education Administrative Files, 1980-1998, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives.



Meredith Goldsmith is a PhD Candidate in Visual Studies at University of California, Irvine. Her dissertation analyzes contemporary artists as workers within art schools and museums, contextualizing their practices and their employing institutions within the postwar history of work in the United States. In addition to art since 1968 and social constructions of work, her research interests include museum studies, cultural studies, feminist studies, pedagogy, and globalization discourse. Goldsmith has published book reviews in Museum and Curatorial Studies Review and Journal of Modern Craft. She presented a paper on Fred Wilson and museum professionalization at the 2014 College Art Association conference. Recently, she curated Museum TV: museums experiment with broadcasting, 1952-1966 for the Emergency Room Gallery at Rice University. From 2008-09 she was curatorial associate at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. She earned her M.A. in Visual Studies from California College of the Arts in 2005.