If Shelley Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s Chief of Technology, subscribes to the New Yorker, then she’s getting her money’s worth. In the summer of 2008, she organized a show inspired by The Wisdom of Crowds, a book by magazine columnist James Surowiecki that argued that diverse groups make better decisions than expert individuals. “Click!” asked the public to rate photographs online submitted by artists on the theme of “changing faces of Brooklyn.” The top-rated photos were installed according to their aggregate rank.
Between now and April 14, Bernstein is crowd-sourcing for her next show, based on New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which investigates how and why split-second decisions are more effective than well-thought-out ones. “Split Second: Indian Paintings” will be on view July 13–Dec. 31.
This time, the online survey is more sophisticated. Instead of simply asking participants to rate images against each other, the three-step process looks into how a viewer’s opinion of an artwork is affected by the amount of time they have to look at it, and by the type of supplemental information provided.
Bernstein and Asian art curator Joan Cummins chose 167 works from the museum’s collection of rarely-exhibited Indian paintings to be included in the survey. Each participant will lay eyes on 40 randomly selected paintings from the total pool of 167. In the first week, 1,000 people took the survey; Bernstein hopes to at least triple that by the time “voting” ends in mid-April.
I took the survey Friday afternoon. First, I filled in my age, gender, and familiarity with art history and museums. Then the survey jumped right into the somewhat anxiety-inducing “lightning round.” Two paintings appeared side-by-side on my screen and I had just four seconds to click on the one I preferred before the next pair appeared (there are 10 rounds total). When I stalled, a friendly notice reminded me not to think too much about the decision.
Step two presents one painting at a time. Next to each I was asked to fill in a word that describes the artwork’s subject or mood. Other participants might be asked about the number of figures, the predominant color, or what’s happening in the scene. On the same page under the text box is a scale with the poles marked “Meh…” to “Amazing!” I clicked somewhere in the middle to note how much I liked each painting.
In the final step, I was again asked to rate individual paintings on the same scale, this time with the help of either a complete caption, a caption and a string of key words, or a caption with a full wall text.
Early on, some strange statistics have emerged. Nearly 70% of the respondents so far are women. Why? “I have no idea,” said Bernstein. “Maybe women are more willing to sit down and try something; maybe they’re more inquisitive?”
Bernstein hopes the data will help her and her colleagues learn how certain types of information influence the way viewers perceive art. Hopefully it entices visitors to ultimately spend more time with the imagery at hand.