Big Trouble in Little Data #musetech

Big data is , well, big thing these days.  Honestly, it has been for a while.  We make so much data by interacting with digital tools.  Daily 2.5 Exabytes are produced every day.  That is the equivalent to 5 million laptops filled to the brim with data. Imagine yourself right now attempting to find one thing in the middle of all of those computers. (You might envy the person seeking the needle in the haystack). So, even with all of these data points, I am making a radical suggestion.  We don’t have enough data.  Or rather, we need to diversify the types of data we collect.

Let’s take this scenario. A visitor decides to participate in a class at your organization.  They use your online ticketing system. Even the worst of online ticketing system gets their name, address with zip code, their preferred class, and their method of payment. (If you don’t at least get this, make a new choice of system). Right now, you have a great deal of data about that patron. And this data is basically quantitative; you can run the numbers on them. You calculate elements that help your audience.  For example, this person is 1 of X number of people from a zip code or one of X number of people who choose Mastercard.

So, let’s get back to our patron, shall we? Then this person arrives at your facility. They drive up to your institution in their shiny teal mini-cooper. They press the button for the ticket, and it doesn’t work.  They press it again.  Finally, a staff parking attendant comes out.  He apologizes and explains that the button they are pressing says “Staff”. They need to press the larger button which says, “Please Press, Dear Visitor”. Mr Parking R. Deck hands the patron the ticket with a smile. Mollified, the patron drives into the parking lot. In this second connection point, there were other data elements playing out. Many questions come to mind immediately. How many times does the visitor try the wrong button before calling the staff? How often do staff get called to explain the buttons?  Is there a correlation between age and misreading the button?  Is there a correlation between height of car and misreading the button?  I could go on…

Most institutions leave this type of data on the table.  It remains anecdotal; the stuff of staff meetings and lunchrooms.  There are several factors for this:

  1. The first might be the word data itself. Data has a mathematical aura that is often segregated to certain fields, like finance and technology. Going into roll call at security, you might seem incredibly radical to ask security to track their “data”. Solution: There needs to be wider understanding across the field of data and the possible sources.
  2. Data only exists if captured. Think about that for a minute. If you are not holding on to it & aggregated it,  there is no data.  Data collection takes time and resources. You need to have tools for collection. You need to train people. Solution: Institutions need to reallocate expectations to change the culture of data.
  3. Data use needs to start with a goal. Right now, many institutions are in the peer pressure phase of data collection; collecting because everyone is doing it. Rather than employing the scientific method that underlies so much of the work of our field, they don’t collect with a goal or thesis in mind. Without a goal, it sure is hard to make a roadmap to that endpoint. Basically, institutions are often wandering in the weed fields of data. Solution: Data literacy needs to include clear education on goal setting.

Making data a part of institutional culture might seem costly, and it would be, but think of this.  There are many members of the museums staff who spend the bulk of their time with visitors, including guards, teaching artists, and visitor experience professional.  Collectively, this is the sector of the museum who tracks the least amount of data.  If you asked any one of them, if they’ve noticed a challenge finding the restroom, they would be able to tell you immediately.  This is also one of the most transient members of our staffing.  They might move up in the field or move out of it.  Either way, their observations remain anecdotes—basically little data.  In order words, institutions throw away what could have been the most valuable data on their clients every day.


#MW17 Cleveland: Big Takeaways


Before #MW17 becomes a faraway memory, I am setting down my greatest takeaways.

  1. Data isn’t numbers; it’s code for ideas. Unlock those ideas thoughtfully.

Data is a perennial topic at MW. But, this year, it seemed to be even more popular with more questions and conversations that highlighted great knowledge about its use (and misuse) in the field.

  • Even clean data is only good data if used appropriately.
  • Data is just clutter if you don’t use it. Museums collected a great deal of data.  But we often don’t set clear goals and then make a clear plan of how to assess that goal.
  • Qualitative issues, like joy, might be tackled through quantitative questions. But, be careful to think through this, as you don’t want to step into the quagmires of false causality.
  • There are sectors of our field that don’t track information, and so this information is unusable. Data isn’t useful if it isn’t collected.
  • Other fields have tackled understanding data, say conversation rates, so their models can be helpful for us.


  1. Trust is returned with commitment

Trust came up throughout many different types of sessions.

  • In a crowdsourcing session, numerous organizations shared the value of trusting patrons to share creative products.
  • Trusting colleagues with data allows you to come up with a better understanding of insights.
  • Trusting visitors with impacting exhibitions creates better exhibitions and greater buy-in in the institution.
  • Trusting the world with open access to collections gives unimaginable results to institutions. Even if statistically few access this data, the investment was low compared to return.


  1. Inclusion hurts no one and so is good everyone.

Inclusion, as the theme of the conversation, did underlie many conversations. While inclusion was discussed in terms of disabilities, in many ways, it was a term about making sure everyone could partake.  In other word, planning for those who might be left out, only adds people to the party—it doesn’t uninvite the average visitors.

In many ways, these three ideas are interconnected. Inclusion is about trust; if you plan for everyone, more people will trust you.  And, allowing others to be included in data planning and research is an act of trust.

Are we doing enough to #SaveTheNEA ?

I have been ruminating on this post for a couple days.  I started thinking about this issue when I saw a number of images showing coal workers and their plight. At the same time, I was seeing a number of tweets about #SavetheNEA.

I assumed that the importance of arts is a result of my own sample of twitter, rather than a random subset of Americans. I am always weary of sampling error, when your subset unduly influences the research.  Sampling is like when you ask your husband how dinner was rather than your picky child.  If you really wanted to understand the effectiveness of dinner, you would need to average both stakeholder’s responses.

In looking at the numbers, arts are a real force in the American economy. They constitute 4.23% of the GDP adding more than $704 billion to the U.S. economy. They employ almost 4 times the fuel industry. (Source, Source, Source. Source, Source)

So, why are politicians not standing beside artist and museum professionals at podiums talking about keeping American jobs?  The arts have an associated elitism where coal miners scream American populism.  There are historical factors that made coal miners “real” Americans.  But, I want to focus on the factors that makes arts and culture not “real” Americans.

We often place ourselves as elitists.  Sure, we speak the language of inclusion, including people of color in marketing or funding small outreach departments. But in terms of our actual institutional norms, we don’t change the way we do things. We maintain opaque norms that are impenetrable to many Americans; and we don’t entice. We continue to do lip service to inclusion but choose not to change the way we do things. We want people to come to our facilities, but we don’t want to change the way we do things. We want our potential new audiences to change for us.

With the real possibility of NEA funding cuts, the national impact to the arts could be seismic. In larger markets, private funding could buoy organizations, but in rural markets there will be major gaps. So, what are doing to change this? We are saying that what we do is important by sending out press releases about the learning that happening in our galleries, festooned with photographs of young children of color.

Really fighting for our sector requires much more.  When the car industry was “saved”, congress required major changes.  They expected the way of life to change so that they could continue to live.  While I haven’t work in the car sector, I can say in museums real change would require changing the nature and payment of work.

  • Museums are woefully underfunded in just the places that they taut as signfiers of their importance: education and engagement.
  • Senior staff often make choices based on research that confirms their existing beliefs, rather than unbiased research.
  • Museum balance the books on the backs of the least paid and closest to visitors: front of house staff.
  • Museums need to actually put visitors first. That means listening when visitors speak. For example, if the labels are too hard to read, they need to make them bigger.

The museum sector is larger than coal mining, by far. Museums cut across every part of this nation, being accessible to those in red and blue states, both physically and digitally.  If coal can reinvent itself as clean coal, can’t museums find a way to be the people’s museums?

Leading Access in Museums #ArtsAdvocacyDay

Americans people museums twice as often as sporting events.  If you have worked in a museum, this is a fact you very likely know.  The high numbers feel field-affirming.  People like museums, see.  We know people like sports (LeBron anyone?) And, they love museums twice as much.

The challenge with all numbers is there is so much nuance.  Are there more unique visitors to museums than sports? Just because they go, do they like museums more?

This debate relates to real dollars.  Museums received millions of dollars in federal funding, through agencies like National Endowment for the Art, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Institute for Museums and Libraries.  Sports isn’t doing it on its own, by any means, but the funding is often in the form of tax breaks or tax subsidies. This difference is more than semantics.  In some ways, this is the difference between the discussion about welfare and farm subsidies. The former is burdened with (unfair) discussions of free money while the latter is about “helping out” important elements of society.

Basically, museums need to be less big institution and more big business.  There is a lot about Corporate America that I hope museums don’t adapt, but there is an important kernel to keep in mind. Museums talk about ownership, but companies truly have ownership involved. Businesses fail when they don’t get customers (set aside federal buyouts). Good ones adapt to keep people.  They make missteps and their stock goes down.  Shareholders are connected to the successes and failures of that company.

But, in museums, our idea of ownership is a feeling. So, their loss is perceived as a feeling. This is, of course, not true.  Museums, and art and culture in general, in many ways would make a much better investment. The arts in American make 704.2 Billion dollars for the economy.  That is 4.5 times the amount spent annual on the NEA.  Sounds pretty good to me in terms of business sense.

Now, I am not advocating actual stocks in museums. But, let’s admit people often have less investment in ownership in the fuzzy feeling sense than in the dollars sense. Museum can go with another business model–more customers.

But, museums aren’t doing a good enough job in terms of soliciting community ownership. Arts and culture are integral to our society.  If you are reading this, you are probably part of my choir.  But, I ask you—what are you doing to help change attitudes in our culture about our song?  In many ways, museums are part of the problem.  We make incremental changes to the way we present our objects and then laud them as being groundbreaking.  I am not attacking you; I am part of that we.  Museums feel inaccessible to many in our society. If they felt as vital, as essential to the nation as sport, rather than an add-on, the specter of funding cuts wouldn’t be so prevalent.

What can we do as a field to make our organizations accessible?  This is the holy grail question that I spent a couple of decades of my life trying to solve.  Family programs, for example, draw patrons to events but don’t necessarily create casual gallery visitors.  Outreach programs grow goodwill but don’t necessarily bring on-site visitors (or even online users).

I don’t have the answer. (And, I made you read this far.) But, I have some lessons learned:

  1. Cede some of your authority on your collection. Allow visitor voices. Bring in debates. Share the interpretation with those outside your field. Scholars won’t lose, but visitors and the organization will gain.
  2. Be truthful about your history. Colonialism, racism, sexism, classicism all go into building collection. It might be your institution’s truth, and museums are about the truth.
  3. Listen. You don’t like when others make choices for you. Why should you make all your choices for your visitors?
  4. Open your processes to your audience. Try new things and tell your audience about it. Listen to their feedback, and then try again.
  5. Don’t dehumanize your audience. Don’t create programs so that you can look diverse for your wealthy funders. Don’t.

With such integral, and fundamental changes, museums would transform their visitorship.  In a time, when so many people are seeking something (a respite from politics or a way to make sense of it, say), this would be THE moment to put real changes in place.  After all, every savvy business person knows, you got to strike while the iron is hot.

Where did the Museum Visitors Go?

Where did the visitors go-

Museum visitorship is down.  You don’t have to believe me.  The NEA, the Art Newspaper, and the Guardian are reputable sources who say just this. Colleen Dillenschneider, wunderkind audience lady, last year wrote extensively about audience declines.  The number of people is tied to the amount of money going into museum operating accounts, both through direct means, like ticket sales, and indirect ones, like grant funds earned based on annual attendance.  Without money, museums can’t operate.  Nonprofit still need some profit to run, of course.

On a bigger level, the decrease in visitorship might be a signal of the declining importance of museums in the public consciousness. This was something Holland Cotter alluded to in his article “How to Fix the Met: Connect Art to Life” for the New York Times. Cotter bemoans the declines in attendance in the Renaissance galleries, once a veritable melee of art-lovers.  In short, Cotter’s feeling is that, despite the best efforts of the education department and the cosmetic improvements to the gallery, the museum is no longer relevant to patrons.  To state it more plainly, since there are no visitors, it means people don’t care anymore.

Now, let’s step away from the Met’s and the attendance problems of the sector.  Think about your recent week.  Did you at any point look your social media feed to find that you were meant to go to an event this evening?  Did you go?  Or did you feign illness only to return home to stream a full season of Midsommer Murders?  I don’t say this to out you as a social misanthrope (not that there is anything wrong with that).  I point out that our society has changed.

Shared experiences are not always sited in communal space. Instead, we are often sharing experiences from the comfort of our homes. Instagram, snapchat, blogging…you can find shared spaces and communities in many non-physical spaces.

So, back to those museum visitors, they might not be hanging out in the Renaissance galleries of the Met.  But, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t engaging.  The MetMuseum’s twitter has 2.6 million followers, as of today.  I love the Met’s Renaissance collection (the Merode altarpiece is why I am in this career), but I would be amazed if there were 2.6 million folks milling in those spaces on any given day back in the good days of museums.

People are staying home.  They are not necessarily leaving the institutions they used to visit; they are visiting them in other ways.  They are watching ballgames at home. As my mother says, ballgames at home can replay all the good angles of the strike (it was a ball), and you don’t have to deal with drunk people.  They are playing movies on their tablets.  And, they are accessing museum collections on Instagram.

So, in many ways, if the museums want to connect to people, first they need to realize it might not totally matter where all the visitors went. They, like you, museum professional, are at home with a computer, tablet, and phone all accessing information and ideas from sources they trust and enjoy.

Second, museums might reach across the leisure sector to see what sorts of things draw people to other things.  As a Clevelander, I can tell you that being part of it still brings people out.  The Cavs playoffs filled downtown and the parade was a juggernaut worthy of that word.  But,  those same people spent weeks being Cavs fan from the comfort of their home (tickets aren’t easy to get, man).  In other words, people will come but only sometimes.  How are other kinds of leisure institutions are doing it? What are their measures of success? When are they okay with people accessing them from home? Let’s look around and benchmark folks.

The visitors might not come back to the physical galleries every time.  They might come for a blockbuster.  But, that doesn’t mean that they have a more shallow connection to the institution.  It might mean they are connecting differently.




Interieur met kaartspelend gezelschap, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-27.865

Interieur met kaartspelend gezelschap, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-27.865

The Danish word hygge is hard to translate.  Books like the Little Book of Hygge, often translate the word as coziness.  These authors go on to share how that word is but a scarce approximation of its actual meaning.  This Danish cultural norm, a sort of way of being, is central to that nation’s high level of happiness.

Currently Pinterest is alight with hygge with pictures of arm knit blankets, roaring fires, and mugs of warm coffee.  Strictly speaking, hygge is about home life, but there are certain tenets that could help make art museum’s more appealing.

Create Sanctuary

Sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety.  Art museums can feel like a sanctuary for those who already feel comfortable there.  But, there are unspoken codes of behavior.  Innocently point at artwork and you might catch the ire of a guard.  Bring a selfie stick, and you will meet another guard.  Should you wish to find a restroom, you will likely need to find another guard to help you find the way.  The signs are so subtle that they fade into the background.  In many ways, the challenge for museums is that they are only sanctuaries for those who are already initiated.  Yet, most museums profit, both fiscally and culturally, from attendance.  So, how can they help others see these spaces as a sanctuary?

Belonging is Key

Belonging is a central element in hygge. When you belong, you feel comfortable participating in the experience. Belonging is hard for museums, in certain ways.  Museums has many special interest groups, starting with the trustees, and moving down to the members. These groups often revel in their connection to the museum, and why shouldn’t they, as they paid for the privilege.

How can museums make all people feel like they belong in the museum community? This is the big question for museums.  There is no one golden bullet, oh if there was.  But, there are small steps.  Let’s go back to the guards.  They are basically the hosts to this party.  They spend more time with the visitors than any other department.  The Walker Art Museum has a wonderful staff, dressed in t-shirts and broad smiles, who makes sure to place welcoming visitors and safeguarding the art as equally important.

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Met Museum 56.70a-c

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Met Museum 56.70a-c

Human Scale

The human touch is essential in hygge.  Think about your most convivial moments in life.  There was the food, the décor, the music.  Or was it the people, their stories, their laughter.  People turn settings into stories.  In large spaces, the quality of human interaction is dissipated.  In intimate, human-sized spaces, you can engage with people in direct ways.  This is the same with art.  Small spaces encourage connectivity.  For better or for worse, I became an art historian because of the Cloisters.  In high school, I trekked to see the oil paintings in their glory.  I still remember stepping through a tiny door into an irregularly shaped room to gaze upon the Merode altarpiece.  This small work, resplendent in its workmanship, seemed to fill the space.

Human scale is not just about architecture.  Few museums have the architecture of the Cloisters.  Human scale is also about choosing to employ the space in ways that focus on people.  Seating groupings imply that one should linger.  Legible labels, rather than tiny print, implies that one should read.

In its essence, hygge is about setting the stay for most people to have an enjoyable experience.  In many ways, most art museums focus on installing art with an eye towards education and learning with little concern for the visitor’s pleasure. Yet, how can people learn if they don’t linger?


Art & #AlternativeFacts : Making the Call Between Fact, Fiction, and Opinion


Years ago, I was in a meeting with a favorite supervisor who bristled when I suggested that we might have a “fun facts” section on the app we were developing. I assure you that she wasn’t against fun.  She felt that “fact” was a dicey issue.  I have been thinking about this conversation often in the last few weeks.


Facts VS Opinions

A fact is something that can be proven and verified by multiple people. Facts can be measured, tested, and observed.  One can research facts.


I was born in 19XX. My birth certificate says it. My mother assures me that she trudged to the hospital in a snowstorm weakened by contractions. (Yes, I suffer from a generational affliction of hyperbole). My age is not my opinion; it is a fact.

Opinion is in opposition to fact. Opinions rest on feeling.  They cannot be measured or verified.  They are often idiosyncratic and self-validating.  You might feel as if you are freezing cold, even as temperatures swell to 100 degrees. But, the fact is that it is hot as all get out.perception

Realistically, there are many elements that we take as fact that can be disputed.  Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and he is still hailed with a national holiday for finding America.  Yet, he, arguably, fell short. Scholarship is a sort of information calculus bringing civilization closer to the truth, generating new “facts” and amending old ones. In other words, the ideas which we commonly call facts can be disputable and transmutable.  Facts are generally accepted and provable ideas.  They can change, but most likely are true.  Yet, they differ wholly from opinion.  Opinions are not provable.

The issue of facts and opinions are at the crux of our national politics currently.  Many intellectual practices, like science and statistics, work in a rigorous way to understand the world.  They research various phenomena that be used to inform action. Certainly, something like climate change is a theory, but one that is held by most scientists.  If there was an equilibrium from an unassailable fact to an unfounded opinion, climate change ranks heavily on the fact side due to the volume of evidence.

Making the Call Between Fact, Fiction, and Opinion

I have been fooled, many times.  Having gone to University of Wisconsin, Madison, I have never once been fooled by the Onion.  But, Hard Times has gotten me more than once.  Admit it, you have too. We are all susceptible, particularly given the volume of information we are taking in every day.  We are making quick decisions to file ideas into one of three bins: fact, fiction, or opinion.

Here is where critical thinking skills and preexisting knowledge play in.  Armed with plenty of both, you should have a 95% chance of getting ideas into the right category. But, critical thinking is a not a born skill.  It must be honed, tested, and maintained. One needs to deal with complicated issues, regularly, and without shutting down.  One must be willing to be wrong and to be faced with ideas that contradict your beliefs.

Here is where art comes in. Understanding an artwork is about diving through layers of ideas and history.  Even something seemingly factual might be open to interpretation. Remember how my birthday is a fact? For most artworks, the date of creation, its birthday if you will, is interpretive.  It is hard to determine the exact day that a craftsman put a finishing touch on that 5000-year-old sarcophagus.  Scholars often use research to create an approximate date, which is basically an educated guess.  Dates, materials, artists…there are so many elements of art that art verifiable…as close to fact as we can get.

Nothing is more open to interpretation than the meaning of artwork.  Why did the ancient Indus Valley people create images of unicorns on their shipping seals? What does the artist hope for you to think when seeing his large metallic rocks out in the garden? What could a wall of faint pencil lines possibly mean? I can’t tell you.  This is not because I haven’t thought about it.  I have talked about the answer to each of those questions with groups of museum visitors of all ages.  I can’t answer these questions, because there is no single answer.  There are several opinions, and no single opinion is right.

Art allows thinker to experience the spectrum between fact and opinion.  Thinking about art is a chance, a low stacks chance, mind you, to face the complications of ideas. There is something powerful about realizing your idea is not universal and that your opinion differs from others.  It can help you see that what you thought was fact is opinion.  Also, it helps you see that you shouldn’t relegate the opinions of others to the fiction/ fake news bin.

Appreciating the nuances of ideas takes time.  One grows skills in deciding the relative merit of a fact or its position on the fact to opinion spectrum.  This takes me back to the “fast facts” section of the app.  There is nothing fast about becoming a critical thinker. Art is, however, an ideal chance to hone your skills at mastering the ability to understand the breadth and complications of information.