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Carol Scott

The Public Value Of Museums - Does Size Matter?

Carol Scott - Sunday, February 16, 2014

In Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures, Lisa Conolly’s chapter on ‘Measuring Public Value’ raises the question ‘does size matter’? In this blog, Lisa shares some personal reflections and provocations on whether ‘size’ is a meaningful measure of public value. She questions ‘size’ in relation to museum buildings, collections and web statistics and finds that ‘size’ is a slippery measure.

The Museum Cathedral

Most museums provide a physical space to be visited. Over the last four decades, huge sums have been invested to establish and refurbish museums throughout the world. Are the size of these investments in monetary terms and the size of the resulting buildings an indication of how much we value museums?  If increased capacity means that a museum is capable of welcoming more visitors, does the size of our attendances mean that a big museum is valued more than a small one?

Grand Collections

In a statistical survey, size matters because the wider your coverage and the bigger your samples the more sure you are about your understanding of the population and the validity of your results. For a museum, does a large, representative collection equate to greater validity, more authority and, therefore, more public value?

If a “collection” has a defined scope and coverage and a representative sample of relevant content, what measures do we apply to assess the significance of smaller, specialized collections where it is not the size but the uniqueness or the special selectivity (representing, for example, a particular historical period) that matters.

Virtually Everything Matters

We are all busy counting hits and downloads. Internet interactions can generate big numbers. But what does it mean? Thousands of hits and downloads may be generated by machine to machine communication. People can hit websites inadvertently while looking for something else. Are numbers of hits a valid measure of value?

Thousands of hits may represent thousands of website users but how do we assess the value to the public of these engagements? As a self confessed museum lover, I confess that my searches on museum web sites usually disappoint me. Virtual tours give a small – too small – sample of artworks or objects. I may be a ‘unique user’ but I often come away dissatisfied- I am seeking greater value than I am getting.This is a case where I believe size matters in a different way. Personally, as these exhibitions and collections are a public resource, I would like to see a much bigger virtual presence of our public museum content. If entire museum collections were online, counting the searches and downloads might give us meaningful indications of the public value of these collections.

Size does matter. But is it always a meaningful measure? What do you think?


Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409446439


 

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