When Manjarrez joined IMLS several years ago, the itemized list of 17,500 museums was “long gone,” he said, just leaving behind a raw number.
Without that, Manjarrez says, key questions were essentially impossible to address. What percentage of small and mid-sized museums are eligible for IMLS funding? What percentage received funding from any government source? What should be classified as a small museum?
Manjarrez began working with others at the agency to come up with a new number that he argued would inclusively capture the funding ecosystem of museums by drawing from sources including the IRS, IMLS, and even third-party data company Factual (which supplies information to Yelp).
In 2014, the efforts yielded the first-ever Museum Universe Data File (MUDF), and with its release the number of museums in the United States doubled, going up from 17,500 to 35,000.
Some in the field long suspected that IMLS had been undercounting. “My first thought was, I knew it,” said Bob Beatty, COO of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). “The 17,500 count just seemed way too low given the sheer volume of history organizations in the country. The fact that IMLS’s count documented more than 17,500 museums just in the ‘history’ category validated our thinking.”
Though the list had duplicates and other mistakes that needed ironing out, “I just saw positives all around, even with a 10% margin for error, which is what I heard as the most common complaint with the count,” said Beatty, adding “for every over-count by 10%, I’d bet there was an ancillary 10% missed.” (Even if they overcounted by 10%, the figure of 31,500 would still be 80% higher than 17,500.)
What The Number Can Do