Every Move You Make: Stalking Patrons at the Museum

I always used to laugh at people who ignored the lyrics to “Every Breath You Take” by The Police and thought it was a lovely love song. If it’s about love at all, it’s about obsessive love—creepy, obsessive love that watches you through the windows late at night as you sleep. Stalking, however meant, always seems wrong. That song popped into my head when I read Isaac Arnsdorf’s piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Museum Is Watching You: Galleries Quietly Study What People Like, or Skip, to Decide What Hangs Where.” In the never-ending effort to make museums more successful in reaching the public (and reaching the public’s wallet), museums are now taking marketing to the next level by literally standing behind viewers and recording their every move. Like the lover in the song’s lyrics, museums now watch “every move you make” in hopes of cracking the code of what you want to see and how you want to see. But is building the better museum this way really best for the art world and the public?

Arnsdorf profiles Matt Sikora, “evaluation director” of the Detroit Institute of Arts, in his quest to crawl inside the mind of the museum-goer. Like a hunter lining up deer, Sikora silently sidles behind or beside patrons and records on a hand-held device (shown above) data such as who the patrons are demographically (gender, age, etc.), how long they spent in a particular room, whether they read the wall plaques, and which paintings they looked at (or didn’t). The Detroit Institute of Arts wants to evaluate some of their redesigned galleries to see how the public receives them. Unfortunately, collecting data via surveillance is so slow going that Sikora expects his research will not be finished until 2012.

Although Arnsdorf’s piece traces museum research of this type to the 1920s and how prevalent this trend is across the U.S., it only briefly addresses the concerns of people who question a quantitative approach to the qualitative world of the arts. In other words, can you really put an aesthetic experience into numerical terms? Aside from this philosophical debate, I’m not sure that the data collection is really objective. Are Sikora and others accounting for the “observer effect,” in which the presence of the researcher affects the subjects studied? Is it possible that having someone nearby in plain view entering information into a machine could drive people to react one way or another? I can imagine some people feeling violated and moving on more quickly than they would like. Or, in the opposite direction, people might feel a need to act more “cultured” and stare down a wall plaque mumbling, “hmmmm… Seurat…”

Is time spent reading wall plaques really a barometer of installation effectiveness? Certainly some people gloss over unfamiliar names and stop in their tracks for familiar names. Does that mean that a Van Gogh is always more effective than a lesser-known artist? Would the results of this study unfortunately crowd out amazing works by lesser-known artists simply due to lack of name recognition. When Albert Barnes developed his Barnes Foundation, he eschewed wall plaques entirely in an attempt to create a “pure” experience freed of the elitist filtering that such peripherals can generate. I feel that there’s a place for wall text, but I don’t see it as the deal breaker of an effective or ineffective installation.

What bothered me the most from Arnsdorf’s piece was how the information was being used to modify wall text. Believing that people skip the plaques because they’re too long or too difficult to read, museums are cutting down the length of the text and even putting them in bullet points. Anyone who’s suffered through the PowerPoint-ification of business communication today knows how dumbed down bullet points can make any concept. Do we really want art dumbed down to some lowest common denominator? Aren’t museums and art entrusted with a mission to challenge the public and make us work to embrace the experience? It’s fine to expect the museum to come halfway to the public, but this data quest seems like museums going too far in their outreach. I hope, and trust, that some thought will be brought to the analysis of the data. Art by numbers alone isn’t art. Not every move by a museum patron speaks volumes, but the next move by museums using this technique will.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.

Vikings unwittingly made their swords stronger by trying to imbue them with spirits

They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.

Culture & Religion
  • Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
  • To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
  • They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
Keep reading Show less

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.
Keep reading Show less