“The Answer to the Great Question... Of Life, the Universe and Everything... Is... Forty-two" ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
There seems to be some fears floating around the arts sector about quantitative measurement of audience experience. Will the use of metrics mean that all of the rich thoughts and feelings generated by arts and culture are reduced down to boring, meaningless numbers?
It’s a bit tricky to pinpoint the root of this fear. It’s felt that numbers can’t possibly represent the full spectrum of emotion associated with art so there’s no point trying. Yet if we don’t try, the sector continues to be judged – wholly inadequately - on numbers like attendance and ticket sales.
1) Numbers don’t have to be narrow
In intrinsic value measurement, a quantitative score is essentially a large collection of feelings and opinions from real people using defined outcomes metrics. It enables a broad spectrum of audiences, communities and peers (not just a small selection of experts) to provide their thoughts and emotions after experiencing an artwork, in a way that can be used meaningfully by the sector.
2) Numbers don’t have to be boring
In a quest to understand Douglas Adams’ choice of number in the cult Hitchhiker series, the internet has explored the number forty-two in great depth. Did you know that forty-two is the answer to these three historic/cultural questions?
- How fast (in km/hr) was the Titanic travelling when it collided with the iceberg?
- How old was Elvis Presley when he died?
- How many hours was Shakespeare’s Juliet in a death-like coma?
3) Numbers don’t have to lack meaning
It’s true that all answers, numerical or not, can be fairly meaningless if you don’t know the question.
“Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"
"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is.”
Sure, a random answer of forty-two will cause much confusion if you don’t know what you're hoping to achieve with the question. If a question isn’t clear or well defined, most answers lack relevance, whether it’s ‘forty-two’ or ‘it made me feel emotional’.
If you know what you’re asking and you follow a standard methodology, numbers can give deep insights into thoughts, feelings and impacts. In an arts evaluation, numbers can help us to understand and grow audiences, compare work to previous seasons, and learn from the experiences of others.
Any cultural assessment can and should include a multi-dimensional mix of metrics and free-flowing qualitative responses. Both can be used to advocate for the vital role of the arts - but using numbers will help generate insights and communicate value far beyond a rich anecdote.