The experience we built for the new SFMOMA has gotten a lot of great press, with headlines like SFMOMA’s new app will forever change the way you look at new museums.
Yesterday, Lee Rosenbaum wrote a piece about the app for the Wall Street Journal with some thoughtful criticisms. Lee concluded that “SFMOMA would do well to rely more consistently on its own curators for cogent, pungent audio commentary.” This is certainly the traditional approach to museum audio tours, and different from the audio walks at SFMOMA, which are guided by people like Errol Morris, Philippe Petit, Marina Gorbis, 99% Invisible’s Avery Trufelman, Alva Noë, and Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani, with the goal of offering voices that reflect the different relationships that visitors have with art.
Lee believes “many of the offbeat audio tours seem geared to those who rarely, if ever, set foot in a museum, underestimating much of SFMOMA’S audience.” So we took a look at the data to see what SFMOMA’s audience thinks. Here’s the list of the most popular content at the museum (as of today):
Ironically, the audio walk that Lee singled out as the worst, German to Me, is the most popular piece of content in the museum. In fact, four of the five most popular pieces are all audio walks in the format she criticizes.
In a follow-on article, Lee praises a short, curator-led audio clip about Mark Rothko’s No. 14 1960 as an example of what SFMOMA should be doing more of. While it’s probably the most famous artwork in the museum, the audio piece ranks 18th in popularity — behind most of the audio walks, even though it’s an order of magnitude shorter in length. Further, it ties for last on this list in completion rate (i.e. how far people make it before they stop listening), which we’ve found to correlate strongly with what people like.
Below are charts we use to measure listener engagement in each piece — they show how far visitors are into a piece when they stop listening.
First is German to me. Listeners are incredibly engaged. Most make it to the end, even though it takes the average listener 40 minutes to complete:
Now, here’s Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960 — almost no one makes it to the end. And it’s only two minutes long:
We appreciate Lee’s point of view, but for what it’s worth, the data shows that it doesn’t seem to be shared by SFMOMA’s visitors.