Statistics, statistics and damn lies: a harmless accounting trick in the Singapore art/heritage scene?

According to this report, “More Singaporeans are visiting national museums and heritage institutions, with visitor numbers hitting a high of 3.2 million in 2013, up from 2.8 million in 2012” (click here). I do not dispute the rise in numbers, as I assume museums do keep track of visitor-numbers somehow. Also, for arts/cultural events, “attendance for non-ticketed arts and cultural events – such as arts, heritage and library events – rose to 18.2 million in 2013 from 17.9 million in 2012”. These 18.2 million ‘attendees’ I question. I assume such non-ticketed events include the Night Festival and other big, open events held in non-enclosed spaces. How do the people in-charge give a good estimate of how many people, for example, actually attended the Night Festival, since some of these events are held outdoors and are spread over a few venues? How do you tell who is a bona-fide ‘Night Festival’ attendee from someone who happens to be walking past the Bras Basah area on the way to a shop or restaurant or hotel? And let’s not start about the much-longer, more spread-out Heritage Fest where it was reported that there were 1.3 million visitors in 2012…

We already have cases where the authority’s ‘creative counting’ have surfaced. Remember when the Singapore Art Museum reported 912,878 visitors (yes, that’s the exact figure, close to a million) to the multi-sited Biennale in 2011 (click here to read my blog entry)? Of these, only 196,000 were ‘indoor visitors’ (i.e. who had visited indoor spaces where the receptionists would have done a proper headcount). The rest of the 700,000+ visitors were reported in the Straits Times as those who have had ”clear and deliberate eye contact with the artwork” that were placed in outdoor premises where there were no proper receptionists doing proper headcounts.

So this year, what can one make of the newly reported figure of 18.2 million attendees for non-ticketed arts and cultural? As I said, these are ‘number games’ that public servants play so as to justify to their paymasters that key-performance-indicators have been met (and therefore make a strong case for the continuation of funds to be injected). Eventually, the numbers will rise and rise to the extent that no one – including the public servants themselves – would believe. As it stands, the 18.2 million visitors to such events in 2013 would mean that all locals (5 million) + tourists (15 million for 2013), would have EACH visited one such event. It may not seem much, but we all must know quite a few people in Singapore who did NOT visit much events (such as some of our elderly parents/grandparents, the office-cleaner, the security guard of your building etc). Having said that, I am glad that it appears (to my untrained eye at least) that more and more people are actually going to such free events; it’s just that someone somewhere must really look at 1) how these numbers were conjured up, and 2) what do these inflated numbers mean to the policy-makers, funders and the person-on-the-street. Well, if you think 18.2 million is a high figure, I’ll be tickled to see what numbers they would be reporting for SG50 next year…

POSTSCRIPT: Do you remember that National Heritage Board reported late last year that even though visitors to museums have decreased, it was ok because the fewer visitors were ‘better engaged’? (click here to see my blog entry about that). So with this latest triumphant report about visitorship increasing, will ‘vistor engagement’ be thrown out the window in the renewed chase for numbers?

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