A Game of Numbers

My day job involves a lot of personnel-related duties, hiring in particular. Consequently, I see a lot of resumes and write and review more job postings than I care to count. I regard myself as a connoisseur of the resume and job posting. I have a theory about job postings which is that they are in fact an obituary of the previous incumbent, focusing on all the missing qualities and their lacking abilities. I believe this is largely due to peer pressure on the hiring manager to overcompensate those lacking attributes that the rest of the museum struggled with when trying to work with the, now departed, individual.

Unfortunately this means that the next time you leave a job, you just need to read the posting for the next incumbent to find out how successful, or not, you were. Forget exit interviews. If the posting takes great pains to explain how crucial the ability to communicate is in the job, guess what? Maybe you weren’t the great communicator you thought you were. Must have a sense of humour? Maybe you’re not as funny as you thought you were. Punctual? Were you always late? Must take personal hygiene seriously? Actually, I’ve never seen that as a job requirement, despite a compelling desire to add it as a basic one.

I’m pleased to say that I am seeing “makes decisions based on metrics” increasingly prevalent in job postings, particularly in senior- and executive-level positions. This is great news, because we are a field that tends to have a violent and allergic reaction to making a decision based on actual fact and measurement. We also have a predilection to cherry-pick specifics from metrics analyses or surveys that confirm our previously held assumptions, or interpret the results in a way that confirms those previously held assumptions. We’re good at interpretation. OK, maybe this is a tad strong, but faced with no-so-stellar exhibition numbers for that blockbuster exhibition we just mounted, we are more likely to have a curious finger-pointing reaction towards our public than to our own shortcomings.

A recent poll of our visitors revealed, among other things, that they actually don’t know the difference or at least, don’t make a distinction between exhibitions and permanent collection. For most visitors, they had absolutely no idea what we talking about, its all just “stuff to look at” for them, reinforcing our categorization that they are in fact, the great unwashed or at the very least, Philistines. But this is valuable knowledge. A recent discussion between Tom Campbell, (Met); Jim Cuno (Getty) and Malcolm Rogers (MFA, Boston) acknowledged a desire to shift away from blockbuster exhibitions to permanent collection and a desire to expose the other 90%+ of the collection that’s never been on display. A decision based on metrics perhaps? Or maybe a recognition that unless its an exhibition about the consequences of an erupting volcano or the untimely death of a boy king – two exhibitions that don’t need a public survey to figure out whether they’ll be popular – its going to cost a lot of money that may or may not be recovered.

As museums begin to implement visitor flow and tracking frameworks, will we actually do something with the information? My institution has implemented an automatic counting system throughout the galleries based on overhead heat sensors in the gallery portals. I demoed it at a recent department heads meeting. Using a browser, you can log into a specific gallery portal and watch, in real time, folks crossing the gallery threshold. Because it is based on heat sensing and the view is from above, you see a vaguely rounded shape moving around. The sensors have some latency and so each rounded heat shape has a tail which gives the whole system the rather unfortunate characteristic of looking like group of sperm searching for an egg – that classic under-the-microscope biology science video that we’ve probably all seen. This vision was not lost on my group of two-dozen department heads, and hilarity ensued for the rest of the meeting. Consequently, the view of this system as a serious analytical tool is now under question, as any mention of it invariably results in some form of innuendo.

But this tracking and other systems raise some interesting questions. If it is revealed that nobody ever stops at a particular artwork, would we remove it? I confess I haven’t asked this particular question, since for curators, works of art are like family. It’s the equivalent of questioning whether we should ship Granny off to the old folks home because nobody ever talks to her. While we might be in favour, we’re probably not going to suggest it.

At is most fundamental, perhaps the whole metrics aversion is just so counter to the culture and philosophy of art appreciation and experience that we cheapen the experience in some way by applying hard data to it. I suspect the reality is somewhat different. To make decisions based on metrics is to acknowledge that while we think our public are discerning, for the most part, the truth is different. In a culture where the most viewed video  is Gangnam Style by PSY with two billion views (yes, really) it actually may be wise not ask the public what they want and act on it.

In a prior job, we surveyed the public for the one piece of information they would want to see about a work of art featured in a comprehensive interactive guide to a museum’s collection. Artist? Date? Size?

I’ll pause for dramatic effect, while you consider what it might be. Hint: Don’t over-think this.

That’s right. How much is it worth?

As you throw up your hands in dismay and wonder why you ever thought it was worthwhile serving the public by working in a museum, there is actually something profound behind the answer. For the most part our audiences struggle to understand why one painting is more important than another. Its hard for them to appreciate, for example, the change in direction that an artist took, which is represented by one particular work, they need a connection. The value of a work provides that connection, it immediately conveys importance (or not) and therefore relevance to the visitor, it is a simple distilling fact that they can relate to. I would love to see some before-and-after metrics of time spent in front of a work of art when the value is given on the wall label. Maybe this is the holy grail of wall text, that would make visitors want to actually read them?

I know, it’ll never happen, heaven forbid we actually give our visitors information they want.

I have another gem of public surveying, but this one has no profound thought process behind it. For the same survey, and you should know that the survey was carried out in Trafalgar Square, London, right outside the National Gallery of Art, a world renown collection, the question was: Name a famous artist.

The top answer? Da Vinci? Rembrandt? Picasso? Manet? Monet?

Sadly, no. Unless you’re British (or Australian) the answer is going to be somewhat lost on you, and in fact was a contributing factor to my desire to emigrate to the US, where you at least have, or had, Robert Kincaid. Yes, the answer was that depressing.

Rolf Harris.

I’ll leave it up to you to Google him, but suffice to say, let’s not ask our public anything again.


2 thoughts on “A Game of Numbers

  1. Ahhh Rolf.

    Even if there is a desire for the data – say for visitor tracking – to be acted upon, I find that so many museums have outsourced their exhibition design/build capabilities that being able to act in incremental ways on that data is compromised. And if we wanted to package that data up for an external exhibition designer or architect we’d have a hard time, and they would probably not want to ‘compromise their artistic vision for the gallery’ by actually using it because ‘their exhibition will radically reshape visitor flows’ anyway.

    When i ask visitors what they want to know, after ‘how much is it worth?’, their next question is ‘why do you have it?’ to which only social history museums seems to have answers that they are willing to publicly share.

  2. This is a great point, Seb. I feel in my heart that metrics-based planning is where we need to be, but I also see in museums’ current structures few opportunities to do much with metrics even when they do exist.

    I sometimes wonder if part of the problem is that a commitment to make decisions based on metrics so often is not made until the data already exists, which leads to simply cherry-picking data to back up decisions that have already been made. Nik, are you aware of a museum director who has made a commitment to make decisions (however small) based on data before the data actually comes in (whether that data is positive/negative/surprising)? That situation would be interesting to study.

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