Monday, December 21, 2009

Visitor trends that disagree

I have blogged before about the lipstick phenomena and its impact on museums, and also the effect that the GFC and the resulting increase in domestic holidays have had on visitors. Now comes conflicting information from a number of sources on the issue.

AFP reports on 15th December 09 that Madrid’s Prado Museum reported near record numbers for 2009, and the Art Newspaper on 9th December 2009 also reports in its annual survey of major collecting institutions from around the world that two thirds saw an increase in visitors.

However The US Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a downturn in visitor numbers (11th December 09) based on a recent National Endowment for the Arts survey on American art habits. The survey reveals that more and more Americans have stopped going to museums, though before we slit our wrists, let it be clear that we are in the same company as music concerts, opera, ballet and even movies.

To be fair the information is not in conflict. We know there is a short term rise in museum going, but the overall trend is unfortunately negative. And why? The article is well worth reading not just for itself, but also for the ensuing blog commentary. In summary the reasons given are:
· The economy
· Lack of relevant teaching and arts education at primary and secondary level
· Losing our sense of the public sphere – we would rather look at things in the privacy of our own home
· ‘Disneyfication’ of museums (this was in a blog comment) , i.e. too many bells and whistles and not enough real things
· Disallowance of photography in museums (also in a blog comment) thus stopping any ‘fun’. Interestingly the blogger gets the need to limit photography for conservation reasons, but believes ( probably with some justification) that the ban is more about a matter of control over images for reproduction purposes
· And finally Adoration of the internet , i.e. we can get it all on-line, including close ups of all those great paintings – “Who needs to go to the Frick to see Rembrandt’s self portrait when the picture can be had for two easy clicks on the keyboard?”

The last point is interesting. We have consistently said , based on evidence out of French research (though I could not put my hands on it) that the more people look at art museum images on the net the more they want to see the real, but this is now suggesting that is not the case.

Sobering stuff, but at least we now have the ‘metrics’ identifying the problem, so we can plan what to do about it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tracking visitor numbers – metrics rule

‘Metrics’ seems to be the new buzz word around town. Metrics are everywhere. It is increasingly with them that we decide what to read, what stocks to buy, which poor people to feed, which athletes to recruit, which films and restaurants to try. The once-mysterious formation of tastes is becoming a quantitative science. Check out a rather cynical article about their pervasiveness in the New York Times November 20th 2009 edition.

Like almost everything, such matters seep through eventually to the museum and galleries sector. By the way, I used to refer to this as the ALM sector - for Libraries, Archives and Museums with museums of course covering art museums otherwise known as galleries. But the acronym increasingly in vogue seems to be GLAM - for Galleries, Museums, Archives and Museums. I like it and will run with that form from now on.

So where is the GLAM sector on metrics? The answer is two part, as the level of metrics varies enormously between the real and the virtual. Let me tackle each in turn.

On the real, namely how many visitors come through the physical doors, where they go and what they do once inside the institution, there is an embarrassing lack of knowledge. Almost all museums have some form of counting system, either through ticketing, or in the case of free entry museums, through counting systems. However even these are invariably inaccurate. There are many stories of attendants with hand clickers clicking away at random to ensure the visitor quota is achieved. Automatic counting systems give better accuracy, but still have difficulty distinguishing between visitors and staff ( and indeed inanimate objects like strollers or boxes). And once inside the institution there is no tracking of visitor paths, establishment of time spent within the institution or dwell times in front of exhibits quantified. One friend of mine admits that the closest he gets to this is sending staff out with a felt pen and a floor lay-out of the galleries, and tracking the route visitors take by hand. When they dwell in front of a particular exhibit, the felt pen is left on the paper in that spot, leading to a bigger splodge of ink. See my blog from June 2009 on the issue.

On the virtual, things are a little more advanced. We all know the power of Google Analytics, which is giving considerable granularity to web site metrics. But the Powerhouse Museum is now doing great work and mining more deeply into what their visitors do on the Museum’s web site. Read Seb Chan’s most interesting latest thoughts on the matter. Seb reports particularly on the issue of repeat visitations to web sites and understanding who is coming back, how often and why.

All is not lost on the real side of things however. We are looking at a mobile phone technology which allows tracking of visitors (all within privacy requirements) , with the added benefit it can reveal how long each visitor stays in the museum, where they dwell, whether they have been before, and, in the case of international visitors, which country they come from. We need to catch up fast to the same level of understanding that Google Analytics can provide for those web site visitors, and in due course work out the crossover.