Museums present different contexts for learning, particularly when compared with places such as schools, universities and libraries. They have been described as free-choice learning environments visited by a broad range of people. Museums have the opportunity to shape identities -- through access to objects, knowledge and information visitors see themselves and their culture reflected in ways that encourages new connections, meaning making and learning. However, across the world museums are finding themselves competing with other leisure and learning experiences in an increasingly global world. The long history of audience research in the cultural sector demonstrates the interest museums have had in their visitors over time. This paper outlines the development of audience research in museums, the context within which it operates, and describes the processes of audience research through a series of case studies drawn from the work of the Australian Museum Audience Research Centre. It is argued that the shift in museums from mission-led program development to balancing content and audience needs through a transaction approach requires a broader research-focussed agenda. While traditional ways of conducting evaluations are necessary and useful, to remain viable audience research needs to be more strategic, working across the sector in new ways and utilising new methods. How programs impact on users and facilitate learning about a wide range of key issues that museums are concerned with is a leadership role that audience research can take across both the cultural sector and other free-choice learning contexts. To achieve this, a communities of practice approach is suggested as a potential framework for audience research in the contemporary museum.