ACM Trends Data Hub: Benchmarking With Public Data

A new national data hub helps children’s museums plan for the future.

by Shaun FieldJohn VoiklisElliott Bowen
Jun 23, 2023

Children's museums regularly collect data on their programs, exhibits, and general operations. Such data can be used to set strategic goals, assess performance over time, and effectively plan for the future. Moving beyond the level of individual institutions, professional associations like the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) also gather this kind of data through recurring surveys sent to member institutions. As evidenced by the ACM Trends Reports series, sector-wide data are incredibly valuable: responses to these surveys allow associations to identify regional or national trends, which individual members can then use to advocate, plan, and spark conversations with colleagues at other institutions.

But collecting this kind of sector-wide data can be difficult, particularly given the burden it places on individual institutions with limited staff capacity. What else can be done to help cultural institutions contextualize their operational experiences and measure them against more general trends?

One approach is to use publicly available data – like that cultural institutions provide in the US Tax Form 990s they must complete every year. Through our partnership with ACM, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Grant MG-80-19-0042-19), in 2019, we began constructing an online portal that helps association members track developments across the field by visualizing recent trends in attendance, income, expenses, and staffing. Combining data from ACM member surveys with that available in Form 990s, the ACM Data Hub gives US-based children's museums an incredibly powerful management tool – one that can be used to compare their performance to both nationwide averages across the field and to that of institutions that are similar in terms of their size, state, or region. Currently, the Data Hub covers the period 2016-2021; as new data becomes available (typically after 1-2 years), the Data Hub will be updated to cover a wider historical span.

Interested in learning more about the ACM Data Hub? Want to know how you might go about constructing a similar kind of database within your own sector? To familiarize children's museum staff with this new resource, we recently hosted a webinar to introduce this new resource and provide an overview of its various features and affordances. You can watch a recording of this webinar below. For help interpreting the Data Hub, see ACM Trends Report 6.2.

By using the ACM Data Hub, children's museums will be in a better position to plan for the future. By studying historical developments across this sector, they will gain the ability to predict and forecast, and to act on emerging trends in ways that result in tangible operational benefits. By comparing their experiences with those of counterparts in other parts of the country, they will be able to make evidence-based, data-driven decisions about their internal operations, while also setting expectations and goals that generate progress toward their shared mission of nurturing the nation's children through the provision of high quality informal learning experiences.

To see how information from US Tax Form 990 might be used in other cultural sectors, we recommend accessing this data through organizations like ProPublica and Guidestar, which provide publicly accessible completed forms released by the IRS.

In partnership with the Association of Children's Museums, Knology produces ACM Trends, an ongoing series of studies to help children's museums professionals use data to manage resources, develop offerings, and experiment with new ideas in ways that best serve their communities. With more than 460 members in 50 states and 19 countries, the Association of Children's Museums is the world's foremost professional society supporting and advocating on behalf of children's museums. The ACM Trends series explores children's health and learning, institutional operations, innovations in museum practice, and more.

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