The March/April issue of Muse included the article "A Case For Visitor Research in Canadian Art Museums" by Katherine Dennis. The piece looked at the current state of visitor research and the need to articulate the public value of museums to stakeholders and community members.
There are no national standards for visitors research and there tends to be little consistency between institutional practices. Many visitor research projects are done as a one off and "most museums seldom go beyond measuring attendance and membership numbers. Some use these figures as a proxy for quality -- assuming more is better....these relatively simple metrics convey little about the audience's experience or the museum's value to an individual or the community."
Visitor stats aren't a bad thing. They tend to be the easiest to generate and do tell you something about your museum. Additionally board members and other stakeholders often like to know about visitor numbers and correlate increased visitors with success. However, the article is right in it's assertion that stats relating to the number of visitors can't tell you about experience or effectiveness of programming.
Dennis argues that museums need to develop systematic research programs which can generate data to be used in program development, funding applications, and to highlight the importance and relevancy of museum programming. But a lot of organizations are lacking to tools and knowledge required to develop metrics and effective visitor research programs. Dennis is currently working with the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies to develop a comprehensive visitor research program. It will be interesting to see the results of this initiative and if other institutions can use it as a model.