ST. LOUIS • One summer day several years ago, the St. Louis Science Center sent a dozen staffers to ride the museum’s two-wheeled Segways in the city’s Fourth of July parade downtown. They waved at the crowd. They handed out fliers. Later, back at the museum, officials estimated 20,000 people saw them in the parade.
Then they added the figure to their attendance.
It boosted the museum’s visitor tally that day to more than 24,000 from about 4,000.
The region’s five tax-supported cultural institutions all count attendance differently. The Missouri History Museum includes the thousands that flock to its summertime concerts. The St. Louis Art Museum, on the other hand, doesn’t count those at its outdoor movie series.
The Missouri Botanical Garden uses a complex series of spreadsheets to track visitors at all hours on three separate campuses. And the St. Louis Zoo, thinking its turnstiles were undercounting, mounted a study on their accuracy and now adds a 1.061 percent coefficient to that door count.
But the Science Center in particular provides a window into the importance — and ambiguity — of attendance. Over the years, center officials have counted career fairs at schools, robotics competitions at area stadiums, off-site board meetings and multiple parades, miles from their home on Oakland Avenue.
In addition, they counted every student at the neighboring Compton-Drew Middle School — which once partnered closely with the museum — every school day, sometimes even when the district called a snow day.
The Science Center is now buckling down. At the start of 2012, the center’s new chief, Bert Vescolani, asked his staff what role the museum played in Compton-Drew’s daily work, he said. None, the staff told him.
“I made sure those numbers weren’t counted in 2012,” he said.
Museum researchers, consultants and administrators across the country say there are no standards for attendance reporting. Some museums count door entries only. Some add in any “engagement,” from IMAX movies to weddings to evening lectures.
“Others just want to maximize their per-capita value to a community,” said Steve Jacobson, a national museum consultant. “That’s where you see taking liberties with the numbers.”
“But if you’re just taking 10 of your staff and saying, ‘Go march in a parade,’ ” he continued, “I don’t know how that engages the community.”
When attendance peaks, museums preen.
In 2007, the Science Center made the Forbes Traveler list of most-visited U.S. museums. Administrators quickly added a new moniker to press releases: 1.2 million visitors, they boasted, and the only Missouri museum to make the top 25.
Last year, the zoo topped 3.5 million visitors. Officials pointed out that it was not only the most popular zoo in the nation, but more visited than St. Louis Cardinals home games.
It’s not just bragging rights. Museum presidents are evaluated based in part on attendance. Donors look to it as one sign of institutional health. Politicians want tax-supported museums — the five St. Louis institutions together get $70 million a year in tax dollars — to serve as many constituents as possible.
St. Louis Alderman Joe Roddy tried to calculate how much tax money each of the five institutions received per attendee. But he used figures reported to him by the museums.
“That’s the problem with all this stuff,” Roddy said recently. “Somebody needs to develop some performance measures for these things, and figure out what the hell we’re getting for our money. Nobody’s doing that.”
‘SOME EXTRA CLICKING’
Attendance is deceptively difficult to count, said Philip M. Katz, a researcher for the American Alliance of Museums.
He can rattle off a list of examples: A 3-year-old skipping back and forth through a laser-sensor doorway 15 times. A security guard with a thumb-counter who regularly added a few extra visitors every day — enough that, when the guard retired, attendance at the museum dipped. (“Apparently when he was bored, he’d do some extra clicking,” Katz said.)
And at museums without closed gates, such as the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, visitors could be there for the pandas — or a morning jog.
Institutions here have seen similar issues. At one point in 2010, a new laser door counter began rolling backwards at the Zoo. One day last year, the Art Museum somehow failed to record attendance at all.
And, just recently, the History Museum asked volunteer doormen to carry thumb-counters. The laser counters seemed to be registering several people entering at once as one person.
Marketing Director Everett Dietle, who oversees History Museum attendance, said leaders often had conversations about counting visitors. They’ve talked about ticketing more exhibits, buying new door monitors and adding turnstiles.
“But that’s an investment,” Dietle said. And he’s not sure it’s a good idea anyway. “Even the latest technology cannot guarantee 100 percent accuracy,” he said.
Bill Dale, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s planning and systems director, called attendance a “barometer of engagement with the community.”
The garden carefully tracks all types of visitors, from those holding garden club meetings to performers at weekend festivals.
Despite all the effort from individual institutions, no one can say how many people in total visit U.S. museums each year.
“It defies logic that public funds are being used and we wouldn’t have that sort of number,” said Carlos Manjarrez, research director for the U.S. government’s Institute of Museum and Library Services, which studies and funds institutions nationwide.
But now, Manjarrez and his team are beginning to define what makes a museum, as part of a census this fall of all institutions. They’re considering questions on governance, revenue, outreach — and attendance.
It’s unlikely that museums would be forced to answer. But, said the museum alliance’s Katz, that might not matter.
“When the government starts asking the questions, they tend to become a de facto standard,” Katz said, “even if they don’t carry the force of law.”
‘EVERY LECTURE, EVERY TALK’
Last year, attendance at the St. Louis institutions ranged from just under 350,000 at the Art Museum to 3.5 million at the zoo.
The zoo tallies everyone who walks on campus as an attendee, be they a hot dog vendor, board member or tourist. The Botanical Garden tickets visitors, but also records after-hours totals, such as for its summertime Whitaker Music Festival.
The History Museum, too, counts its outdoor concert series — so popular that museum staffers climb to the building’s roof to estimate attendance. Last year, the 13 “Twilight Tuesdays” accounted for 50,000, or nearly 13 percent, of the museum’s 384,000 visitors.
Science Center practices, however, may have stretched the definition of attendance.
From 2006 to 2011, the center reported average daily attendance at Compton-Drew Middle School as “off site” museum visitors.
In 1996, the center helped open the city magnet school. At that point, museum educators roamed school halls. But students didn’t interact with the museum daily, former teachers say. “There’s no way my students were there every day, unless they were cutting class,” said Colleen Peters, a former English teacher there. By the mid-2000s, few if any museum workers staffed the school every day, said former school and museum employees. Still, the center kept counting Compton-Drew students.
On March 4 and 5, 2008, a snow storm hit. The Science Center closed early. The district canceled school. And the museum recorded 420 Compton-Drew students both days. Over the six years, the middle-school students accounted for 80,000 a year in attendance, on average.
The Science Center, however, had another way to boost numbers: It participated in community events and counted a portion of the estimated event attendance in its rolls. It did so in 2006 with the city’s Pride Parade, in 2006 and 2007 at the July 4 Veiled Prophet Parade downtown, and in 2008 at the Webster Groves Community Days parade, among others. Carol Valenta, a senior administrator in charge of such events, said staff “really interacted” with people at parades. But she couldn’t explain why the numbers were reported as attendance.
The Webster Groves parade generally attracts 10,000 to 20,000 revelers, said city parks and recreation supervisor Steve Clark. The Science Center recorded 4,000 attendees from the parade in 2008. Clark, however, also said he scrutinized all parade-entry applications that year and could find no record of the Science Center’s participating.
Between 2006 and 2011, the Science Center added an average of 159,000 attendees from off-site events to its annual attendance rolls, or about 13 percent of 1.2 million served annually.
But last year, new chief Vescolani got strict. He reported 67,000 off-site, or about 7 percent of 940,000 served. Events shouldn’t count unless they serve to educate about science, he said.
“Some organizations count every lecture, every talk given,” he continued. “I gave a dozen talks in 2012.”
He didn’t count the attendance at any of them.