sure statistics have sex appeal, but what do they actually tell us?

Over at ArtInfo, an article entitled “The sudden sexiness of museo-success metrics” discusses the near-viral attention that a paper by Maxwell L. Anderson: “Metrics of Success in Art Museums” has seen in the last few days within the museum community. Although the paper is 8 years old, its enduring relevance, an especially important reminder in the midst of the annoying hype of MOCA’s Director Jeffrey Deitch and his agenda of promoting celebrities, and other other silly stories that only make us lose our focus, has brought about refreshing discourse on the meaning of statisticts and the priorities they [should] point to in our institutions. The lesson and point of the paper – that statistics are an attractive, and easy point of measurement, but are also potentially misleading – can benefit institutions other than museums: it matters for archives and libraries too.

It’s wonderfully straightforward and critical, but also raises good questions about how priorities have changed with the explosive increase of online presences and social media engagement. In a budget crunched field, it’s difficult to decide whether program evaluation, the application and study of best practice, or other time-consuming initiatives are most important to the mission of an institution. There’s no catch-all answer.

Another point that I think is worth addressing, is what numbers mean at all. Although statistics can be valuable, they do not always tell the whole story. For instance, just because Google Analytics tell you that the average person spends less than 25 seconds on your site, doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. That can actually be a reflection of a well-organized website that doesn’t require guess-work or unnecessarily lengthy navigation for patrons to find exactly what they’re looking for. If they want to know ticket costs and open-hours, and they find it within that time frame, those statistics reflect a stronger UX design than one that requires 60-90 seconds to find the same information. Some tasks and reasons for visiting are more complex and time intensive, though, like collection browsing and research, so average stats can be hard to interpret or understand – and it isn’t always valuable (or possible) to psychoanalyze them completely.

Tools like Museum Analytics can give more context toward stats being recorded at other institutions, but this is another place to tread carefully. I believe that  comparison can be extremely constructive if used for the right reasons, and can even bring about collaboration and ingenuity; but it can also be destructive. The web tool received accolades from this year’s Museums & the Web awards, but it’s worth reading discourse on others’ experiences and points of confusion before taking everything it has to offer at face value.

A really valuable discussion has been coming up from the re-emergence of these groundbreaking papers and documents, and it will be a great opportunity to follow along on the social media outlets we’re lucky to have today to see where conversation goes. Stay interested and connected – collaboration is how we can come up with better answers to some of these hard questions as a community.