Posts Tagged ‘Pittsburgh’

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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Photo by Geff Rossi via flickr

Last week one of my students, Madeline Karp, told me about her family’s visit to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. She was particularly struck by the Hall of Birds, which she described as a long hallway lined with glass cases displaying the bird collection, some stuffed in poses and some displayed more as specimens, flat on their backs. One case was filled with comparisons: birds from popular culture (Tweety, Opus from Bloom County) next to their counterparts from the natural world. Here’s the photo she took of Toucan Sam:

Photo by Madeline Karp

According to Madeline, there was a lot of intense birdness in the Hall of Birds. It was maybe even a little disturbing if you weren’t used to seeing bird specimens flat on their backs like that. The experience led her mother to comment that it looked like the exhibition had been made either for or by cats.

I was thinking about Madeline’s story the next morning while I was walking my friends’ German wirehaired pointer. I was imagining cats roaming the Hall of Birds, noses pressed to the cases, and a team of cat curators making decisions about the most tantalizing specimens to display (maybe throw in some fish for variety, and open the window shades to make plenty of sunny spots on the floor).

Meanwhile, here I am walking the dog, and she’s investigating every nook and cranny of the neighborhood streets with the kind of enthusiasm and detail that I wish every city resident would display. And it hit me: cats don’t get out in the city all that much, but dogs certainly do. Has any museum ever done an exhibition depicting their city from a four-legged point of view? The urban history of things dogs care about: hydrants, parks, smelly things, leash laws, dogcatchers. Historic photographs taken from two feet off the ground. I would give a nice tasty chew toy to see that, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

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It will come as no surprise that I’ve visited a lot of city museums lately, both in the US and in Europe. Patterns are emerging. Today I want to discuss one in particular: the permanent city history exhibition. Almost every city museum has one, and they are remarkably similar. They are almost always chronological in nature, starting with prehistory and native communities, and winding up somewhere around 2000. The following topics are covered, more or less in the following order: (more…)

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