19 March, 2015
When we talk about people counting in crowded places – be it for security, resources optimization or marketing campaign evaluation – we think about train stations, concerts, night clubs, airports, tradeshows, … and also museums.
Although it may have many applications, a useful people counting solution has to provide concrete indicators aligned to the reality of each sector. For that reason, when we at Counterest considered the idea of offering our technology to museums, the first thing we did was to interview one of the main referent in the sector: Eduard Carbonell, Full Professor of Art History and director of MNAC from 1994 to 2005. We wanted to understand his vision about counting people solutions for museums.
Eduard received us kindly at his home, a house that seemed to pay tribute to all those treasures of culture and humanistic ideals. It was then when I started questioning if our approach of counting, measuring and optimizing would sound good to him. However, after a brief introduction it turned to be clear for him how our technology could help museums and he even supported enthusiastically our approach. After that I’ve seen roughly the same enthusiasm in other agents within the museums ecosystem. Indeed, it happens that this sector is moving fast towards data-driven decisions. If we think about what they have had to face up throughout the past years we’ll perfectly understand their position.
In this situation of profound economic crisis, museums have doubly suffered because they are organizations with a clear focus on giving a social service and hence they are financially dependant to public administration. So they have been pushed into a more radical rethinking if comparing with other sectors: move towards self-financing and, consequently, put more attention into the side of demand, that is, visitors.
It is difficult to find today a museum whose strategy is not focused around its audience and this trend has created a debate about the risk of its mercantilism. For instance, in this article, arts critic Colin Dabkowski alerts about “how much they [cultural groups and institutions] allow the terms and tactics of Wall Street, Washington and Silicon Valley to infect their humanistic missions”. He adds that “the most important functions of arts organizations – to educate, inspire and foster empathy across cultures and experiences – have been and always will be unquantifiable”.
The fact that artworks have not got undivided attention anymore, but they have to share it with the audience is definitely a paradigm shift and it is logical that generates controversy. The true however is that although art value is not quantifiable, it is the cost of managing it: in terms of conservation, exhibition, promoting, etc. And it seems undeniable the need to guarantee the sustainability of using these resources.
When talking to museums, we check out that their interest in gaining knowledge about visitors behavior is not for a commercial use of the art, but for using more rationally their operating and limited resources: align scheduling and staff with the real influx of visitors or evaluate temporary exhibitions in terms of amount and duration of visits due to a need to prioritize. Usually it is also a matter of being more transparent, especially in an era in which patronage and sponsorship are becoming more important and public administration also demands accountability.
In any case, the debate is assured because is absolutely necessary. The massive use of data about visitors behavior has appeared to coexist with the artistic value and social and educational criteria and it will have to be guaranteed a balance between all of them, something that won’t be trivial.