This is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote for a EU supported Heritage revival handbook, due later in 2013.

In his book The Long Tail, former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson makes a compelling case for the large number of things that don’t happen in the ‘head’ or most popular part of any distribution. For example, when given the opportunity and a virtually unlimited audience, much more books of the 99.99% not in the average top-10 dominated bookstore  will be sold that of the 0.01% (both numbers are made-up stats) on regular display, although the number of sales per book in the latter case will be considerably higher. Physical bookstores have finite space, unfortunately, so they are limited to selling books that sell often and in great quantities. The internet has infinite space and can sell all the others. Hence the success of Amazon cs.

When it comes to finding a meaningful and relevant place in the digital revolution, in the past decade most museums seem to have been focused on the long tail. (As opposed to the physical realm, where blockbuster exhibitions clearly aim at the head of our audience distribution.) If only enough of a collection is digitised and put online, if only enough apps are produced with enough content and if only enough tweets are sent, more people will interact with the museum. I sincerely doubt this is the right approach. If I Google “Rembrandt van Rijn” on a computer in Amsterdam, only the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis are in the top-10 results (number 8 and 10, respectively). The Rembrandthuis, where the painter lived and which is literally around the corner from where I conducted the experiment, doesn’t even show up in the first 50 results. It’s the same for almost everything. Others win in the competition for number 1 positions in Google and get all the traffic. What works well for Amazon doesn’t necessarily work for museums.

A recent article in the UK edition of Wired refers to a study done by John Gantz and David Reinsel with the appropriate name Extracting Value from Chaos. The authors observe that now the amount of information in the world is more than doubling every two years, the new obsession is to parse meaning from this data. Data-scientist, a person who can find meaning in large numbers of raw information, is quickly becoming the digital world’s hottest profession. To me, the job of these people sounds a lot like the job of most exposition makers and curators in museums: tell a story using the huge collection and available knowledge at hand, or in other words: finding the head in the long tail.

Anita Elberse, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has frequently opposed the idea of the long tail for most of the entertainment and cultural industries and come up with some interesting findings. For instance, in her research it seems most consumption of culture still appears in the head. Only experienced and ‘heavy users’ venture into the tail of most content distributions. Or, as she said in a recent interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC and I paraphrase, most people really only care about Lady Gaga.

I believe this is an opportunity for museums: the unique subject knowledge of museum researchers, curators and other professionals allows them to select the ‘head’ of any given topic and make meaningful links to its long tail, thereby introducing inexpert visitors to the collection and knowledge at hand. It’s not impossible to link from Lady Gaga to – for instance – ‘obscure’ classical music. Nor is it impossible to interest people in culture, art and heritage starting from the head of the distribution. An excellent example of such an approach is the Facebook page of the Saatchi Gallery in London. Using the world’s most famous and popular art, they have built a platform where they can occasionally introduce a general public to more niche, ‘long tail’, art and culture.

Museums shouldn’t compete on the long-tail. With digital media, museums should compete for the head of the distribution. Museums can be the data-analysts of culture, art and heritage, and offer the general audience much-needed value in the chaos, not only online, but with apps and other tech also in the physical world.

Image by Andrew Barclay on Flickr.