Big Brothers in the Museums

Can you spot the spotter?

When we go to museums, either for Art Hum or because we (secretly!) enjoy it, we go to look. We watch how a certain brushstroke creates a new effect, how a certain angle of light reveals a new dimension on a sculpture, or simply how beautiful a work of art can be. However, while you are pondering the mysteries of a painting, there might be someone watching you, and getting paid to do it.

A recent Wall Street Journal by Isaac Arnsdorf looks at the fascinating subject of museums evaluate themselves. It isn’t just about those small survey cards that you can fill out as you rush out the door—this is a science down to every last paining and caption. Arnsdorf specifically focuses on the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan, and how museum evaluation essentially builds the program.

After the jump: How it’s done!

The big surprise in the article—at least to someone unfamiliar to this process—is that museums spend up to 10% of their budgets on this type of evaluation, and even during the last few years when museums have had to cut back. This may seem unnecessary—the art speaks for itself, after all—but for a museum like the Detroit Institute of Art, it’s a necessary process of how to make the museum more dynamic and its viewers more interested.

The way it works is this. People are planted in rooms to observe people over a course of a few hours. If a person puts two feet down in front of the painting, it counts as a view. They also take tally if the person will read the entire caption, or if a person will look at more than half the paintings in a room, thus becoming a “diligent visitor.” The article has a cool interactive piece that will give you an example of how it works.

This all adds in a way to make a museum much more appealing. Paintings that don’t get much viewing will be shifted; captions that are too long are shortened. Everything is made to increase the interaction the viewer has with the paintings.

However, while this might be important for Detroit, one might question how

It's called "Starry Night" people, and its by Van Gogh.

much a New York institution like the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art might need this. Both the New York cultural institutions have something that Detroit counts much less on—tourists. While the MoMA and the Met have their returning visitors, they can always count on visitors to come simply based on the brand name and prestige. MET tourists want to see the “Egypt stuff” while MoMA tourists rush to see the one “where the stars look like circles.”

But don’t rule out New York for not using this technique before. Sure, many objects in the bigger museums stay where the are (and it might be a little difficult, as well as sacrilegious, to rearrange The Cloisters), but I’m sure we’ve all walked into the MET a second time and simply “could of sworn that paining was right here.” This also probably happens with new and temporary exhibits as well.

In the end, selling a museum is like selling anything else: You need a brand, a commodity, and market research. When we go to museums, don’t feel obliged to stare at a painting because you are a student—you may throw off the numbers! Plus, you get to go to the museums for free with Passport to New York (a whole 32 of them!) Just remember—even though we’re not in Soviet Russia, museum watches you.


Peter Labuza, CC’11

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