Is the Future of Museums Really Online?

In a world where the future of seemingly everything is online, museums — those repositories of the past — seem to resist the internet’s full digital embrace. It’s a question that’s increasingly crossed my mind thanks to a series of unrelated stories that share two common questions — how do people use museums now and how will they in the future? For every digital breakthrough enticing us to step on the virtual gas comes a cautionary tale reminding us to pump those virtual brakes. Ultimately, the online revolution is coming to museums, but is the future of museums really online?

In a world where the future of seemingly everything is online, museums — those repositories of the past — seem to resist the internet’s full digital embrace. It’s a question that’s increasingly crossed my mind thanks to a series of unrelated stories that share two common questions — how do people use museums now and how will they in the future? For every digital breakthrough enticing us to step on the virtual gas comes a cautionary tale reminding us to pump those virtual brakes. Ultimately, the online revolution is coming to museums, but is the future of museums really online?

The National Endowment for the Arts (a.k.a., the NEA) recently published several reports of data collected in 2012 (the last year available) regarding how Americans patronize (or don’t patronize) the arts. In When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance, researchers found that “[t]here were common barriers for the 13 percent — 31 million adults — who were interested in a specific event, but did not go for some reason.”

One barrier was time, especially for the “[n]early 60 percent of people with children under age six.” The report concludes that “[t]his finding could inspire arts providers to develop more family-friendly program options,” but, as every parent knows, even “family-friendly program options” can fail in the face of runny noses, potty training, and every other obstacle to simply getting out the door. I don’t see any breakdown of what respondents mean by “time” to reflect whether that’s a problem of inconvenient museum hours or not, but maybe the parents of toddlers were just too busy to answer the follow-ups.

Americans also cited location as another major barrier, with particular difficulties for “retirees, older adults, and adults with physical disabilities.” “If we're quantifying the value of what we often term ‘access to the arts,’” the report adds in its bottom-line voice, “it's about 11 million lost audience members or exhibit-goers.” How many millions of dollars do those 11 million lost potential patrons add up to for the cash-starved culture sector?

Finally, “22 percent of those who wanted to attend, but chose not to, said a barrier was not having someone to go with.” This statistic will no doubt be used to justify “single’s events” and other socializing programming at museums, but for the introverted single, such a social setting might actually make museum attendance more intimidating and less attractive.

The study found major motivators for attendance to be “socializing with friends or family members (73 percent); learning new things (64 percent); and supporting the community (51 percent),” thus mirroring at least the solitude barrier. It also found that self-identified middle-class respondents attended more than did self-identified working class respondents and argued that “[t]hwarted interest, rather than lack of interest, may be the cause for lower attendance rates among some audiences.” In other words, people who wanted to go were “thwarted” by economics, education, some other factors, or a combination of factors.

A separate report, titled A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012, found thatadults who attended performing arts or visited museums as children were three to four times as likely to see shows or visit museums as adults.” All those who support arts in schools should smile at the report’s conclusion that “[e]xposure to the arts in childhood turns out to be a stronger predictor of adult arts participation than education, gender, age, or income.” The “get them while they’re young” philosophy remains as true as ever.

But what that adults’ arts participation looks like is changing, according to the report: “Technology is a great enabler of arts creation and participation. In 2012, nearly three-quarters of American adults — about 167 million people — used electronic media to view or listen to art, and large proportions of adults used electronic media to create music or visual art.” That online arts usage separates by gender, too, with “men… more than twice as likely as women to use electronic media to create or perform music, and… also more likely to create visual art online.” (Perhaps that online-usage gender gap might explain the gender gap at so many museum “singles events,” as single women often embarrassingly outnumber single men. [I don’t have hard numbers for that suspicion, only anecdotal evidence from my own single days.])

There are strong arguments from the report for a digital future for museums. Virtual museums such as those found on Google Art Project are open for business 24/7/365 for the busiest parent to enjoy Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night in their pajamas rather than in line at the MoMA, and in zoomable high definition at that. Those unable to reach New York City’s “museum mile” due to distance and/or disability can break down those barriers online through Google Art Project or the museums’ own individual digitized collections. For art “junkies” such as myself, who might only have been to the Louvre once in the flesh, online collections and multimedia access to the Mona Lisa not only bring back fond memories, but also less fond memories of elbows and shoulders interfering with my enjoyment of La Joconde.

Aside from those inconvenienced by big crowds — especially for blockbuster exhibitions or museum “must sees” — there are those who simply cannot function well in a bustling museum environment. The Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, recognized that people with some form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which in the Seattle School District is 10 percent of the special education population, struggle with the overstimulation of big crowds and the standard, fill-your-senses museum treatment. In response, they now open the museum up at special hours exclusively to accommodate people with ASD, especially those children who, as the NEA study suggests, could most benefit from the early experiences.

Museums also benefit from a virtual presence when the real-world presence isn’t available. While waiting to reopen this May after major renovations, the Whitney Museum hopes to stay in the minds of patrons by staying on their screens thanks to an expansion of its online database from a paltry 700 items to a generous 21,000 items by more than 3,000 artists. In addition to works temporarily unavailable, works that may never be seen physically again can be “seen” online once more. Ziv Schneider’s The Museum of Stolen Art allows visitors to virtually view art stolen or looted (especially in the Middle East during recent wars) and never recovered. Wearing virtual reality goggles and listening to the audio tour, the visitor can have a virtual museum experience unavailable in the physical world. Schneider’s project not only provides access otherwise impossible, but also educates visitors about the reality of stolen art and, possibly, could lead to the art’s recovery if the right person remembers seeing one of those works hiding in plain sight.

But what are the cons of museums going totally digital? As George Carlin joked, “stuff” is what makes the world go round. Museums collect the “stuff” of civilizations. When humans hunted and gathered, stuff held us back. Agrarianism let us settle down with our “stuff.” Collecting “stuff” became a badge of being civilized. Museums let us save all that “stuff” (along with the badges of civilization we won for having “stuff”). As long as we need “stuff,” we’ll need museums.

However, just as we evolved to need and have “stuff,” will we evolve again as part of the digital age to no longer need “stuff,” or perhaps just need virtual, online “stuff”? Anyone who’s converted to digital music players or text readers will gleefully toss their CDs and books onto the scrapheap of history. Accounts of the death of CD music sales and music sales entirely are hardly exaggerated. The publishing industry, especially newspapers, is on life support. When the book-loving dinosaurs (myself included) go extinct, perhaps we’ll finally see the dawn of a new, fully digital age.

Still, can museums ever go totally digital? Isn’t there still something to the aesthetic experience — the visceral thrill — of being in front of the physical thing itself? The Louvre can digitize the Mona Lisa all it wants, but crowds will still flock to Paris and endure the crowds to see the smile (shockingly small after all the hype) with their own, real-world eyes. Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian editorialized last year that the best way to save museums is to break them up, similar to the idea of libraries splitting up their collection among branches, thus decentralizing the collection to reduce crowds while increasing access.

As Vartanian points out, The Louvre — the most visited museum on Earth — already has “branches” in the Louvre-Lens and (not yet open) Louvre Abu Dhabi, so there’s a precedent for Vartanian’s model. He also cites Greece’s effort a decade ago to decentralize outward from Athens as “help[ing] place artifacts in their geographic context while spreading tourist dollars to remote areas.” I like Vartanian’s suggestion of using a library model, but there’s also just one problem — that library model is also dying. Physical decentralization addresses the location barrier in one way, but the fact that more people are accessing the arts online, just as more people are reading online more and on paper less, remains a problem.

Perhaps The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer is right to tout that “The Museum of the Future Is Here” in the form of the new Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City. Don’t let the old-fashioned façade of the Andrew Carnegie Mansion (shown above), home to the Cooper-Hewitt, fool you. Beneath that façade beats a new, digital heart. Each visitor receives a “pen” with which they can access digital information on the works they see and “collect” them digitally to enjoy at home. Read the whole article to discover the multiple ways (including hopes of becoming a link “hub” a la Wikipedia, but for the arts) the Cooper-Hewitt has reached out to the digital world while retaining its physical tradition, but the money quote from Meyer is this: “The Cooper Hewitt has transformed into an organization not unlike Wikipedia, Pinterest, or, for that matter, The Atlantic: Somewhere between a media and a tech firm; it is a Thing That Puts Stuff on the Internet. Or, more precisely, A Thing That Puts Things on the Internet.” Maybe you can have your “stuff,” and be digital, too.

The question of whether museums (and the rest of the world) will go online is moot. The real questions are how and how soon. Will museums keep pace with the world around them and remain relevant to new generations raised on tablets? Or will they lag behind and hope for a nostalgic niche market similar to those who market vinyl albums to music lovers who can’t abide iTunes? Cooper-Hewitt’s transformation may or may not be a model for other museums, but at least it’s a model to keep the discussion and questioning going.

[Image: Facade of the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, home of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, NY. Image source: Wikipedia.]

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.