Archive for October, 2011

This spring I spent a few days in Vitulano, an Italian town of about 3,000 residents, built against the side of a mountain northeast of Naples. It seems that everyone in Vitulano is from a family that goes back generations in that same spot—half the town is related to each other by marriage or birth. And many of the families that have moved away to seek their fortunes elsewhere still come back to Vitulano whenever they can—on the weekends, during holidays, for family events.

While I was there I met a man named Corrado Mazzarelli. He left Vitulano when he was a teenager, first for Argentina and then for the U.S. But as a young man he came back to Vitulano to find a wife, and now that he is retired, he spends time there regularly. About Vitulano, he told me, “Your town is your second mother.” About his wife (they are still married), he told me, “the cow and the bull must be from the same town.”

We don’t always have the relationships we want with our mothers, but they are our mothers for better or worse—hopefully better—and that personal connection to place, like our connection to our mothers, is an imaginary line tied tight to us wherever we go. For some it may just be a thin thread; for Vitulano I think it might be a steel cable.

As for the cow, that’s an entirely different story.

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I make a lot of qualitative comparisons of city museums. But recently I’ve been thinking about quantitative comparison; what do the numbers say regarding which city museums are working and which ones aren’t? Annual visitation is one useful comparison, particularly annual visitation in relation to overall population, or annual visitation as compared with the art museums in the same cities. I’m slowly compiling the data on this—not every museum publishes their numbers, and there are a lot of variables in terms of how visitation is counted.

A few weeks ago I realized that comparing TripAdvisor reviews might also yield some interesting information. TripAdvisor reviews are posted by members of the general public, not by museum professionals like me (at least most of them aren’t posted by people like me), and unlike the visitation figures, all of the scores are crunched using the same formula. So I took a look at the TripAdvisor reviews for 32 city museums in Europe and North America. I mainly stuck to the ones I have personally visited, although I threw in a few additional ones (Ghent, Vancouver, Liverpool) I want to visit because they are generating buzz. First, a little context:

  1. Most of the reviews on TripAdvisor are posted by tourists, not locals. Occasionally a reviewer’s profile location matches the review city, but most of the time these are folks assessing their sightseeing experience while traveling.
  2. TripAdvisor reviewers (if their profile locations are to be believed) come from all over the world (TripAdvisor provides a Google Translate button).
  3. Fifteen of the 32 city museums each had 5 reviews or less, which means we have to take the scores with a grain of salt.
  4. Not every place in my survey is a spot-on city museum in the traditional sense (run by a non-profit organization or the local government, with a mission to preserve and disseminate the history of its city). I included a few outliers that offer city history exhibitions but don’t fit the standard mold (the for-profit Story of Berlin, for example).

With that background in mind, how did these city museums rate? On one hand, very well. 24 of 32 received scores of 4 stars or better, on a 5-star scale. There was only one score lower than 3 stars. This may simply mean that the kind of folks who visit city museums while on vacation, and then rate them, are the kind of folks who are predisposed to like city museums. The following museums scored a 4.5 (with number of reviews in parentheses after the name): Museum of London (104), Atlanta History Center (46), Story of Berlin (33), Museum of the History of Barcelona (29), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (28), People’s Palace/Glasgow (16), STAM/Ghent (5), Detroit Historical Museum (5), Stockholm City Museum (4), and McCord Museum/Montreal (3).

On the other hand, the TripAdvisor ratings suggest that city museums are rarely among the top things to do in their cities. TripAdvisor ranks all the attractions in any given city based on number and quality of reviews. Only 5 city museums ranked in the top 10 for their cities: Atlanta History Center (3/167), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (3/50), STAM/Ghent (5/27), Vapriiki Museum Centre/Tampere (9/26), and Turku Castle and Historical Museum (9/14). With the exception of Atlanta, these seem to be cities with few attractions overall. If I try to control for number of attractions in each city, the city museums that come out ahead are Atlanta History Center (3/167), Museum of London (16/720), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (3/50), People’s Palace/Glasgow (11/135), Museum of the History of Barcelona (17/204), and Pointe-à-Callière/Montreal (19/199).

I noticed a couple of other themes from the textual reviews. First, TripAdvisors made note of free admission as something they valued (Helsinki City Museum, Musée Carnavalet/Paris, Museum of London, Museum of Edinburgh), not surprising. Second, some museums have unusual features you don’t see other places (Mannekin Pis wardrobe at Museum of the City of Brussels, the Kaiser Panorama at Markisches Museum/Berlin, the nuclear fallout shelter at Story of Berlin, and the archaeological excavations on the lower levels of Pointe-à-Callière/Montreal and Museum of the History of Barcelona), which then get reinforced in the reviews as a reason TripAdvisors think other people should visit.

Lastly, it’s interesting that several of my personal favorites (Helsinki City Museum, Museum of Copenhagen, Amsterdam Museum) did reasonably well (4 stars each) but did not stand out. And Museum of the History of the City of Luxembourg wasn’t reviewed at all. Maybe they would fare better with local reviewers?

I learned a little from this exercise but not as much as I’d hoped. I’m going to keep my eyes out for other numbers to compare. In the meantime, it looks like I’ve got some reviews to write…

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My own joke repertoire is pretty slim, but I did just hear about a really interesting collaboration between the Chicago History Museum and the improv comedy group The Second City. They are teaming up to create a new show about the history of Chicago. The Chicago History Museum is providing guidance and historical materials while Second City develops the show, and last month CHM hosted eight preview performances where the audience was invited to provide live feedback on the work in progress. Second City is scheduled to debut the completed show in December. A recent writeup on redeye gives this description of the preview:

Though in this construction phase the performances are different each night, but if a recent show was any indication, the comics don’t plan to hold back on much. Chicago Public Schools, aldermanic elections, Chicago police, Chicago politics, Wrigleyville, trolley tours, Schaumburg, and the bean (“It looks like a lady’s pleasure button”) all fall under the satirical scrutiny of the show….If this performance was any indication, the show will blend those kind of catnip-for-the-audience jokes with more esoteric references to Chicago’s long history.

There are two things I like about this project. First, it looks at history in a different way, always a positive in my book. Second, it makes sense from a collaboration standpoint. The Second City is a venerable Chicago institution in its own right, but it is not the traditional kind of partner for a city museum. Therefore Second City brings a lot to the table: fresh ideas, and a new audience. So look around your city: what are the beloved institutions, no matter the field, that might make interesting partners? And let me take that one step further: maybe city museums should establish residency programs, inviting specialists from a variety of different fields to spend a few months to a year creating collaborative work. I would like to see the results of such cross-pollination, comedic or otherwise. In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for reviews of the new Second City show at the end of the year.

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