Why You Can't Escape Crowds at the Louvre

Regardless of how long they spent in the museum, everyone ends up in the same places.

Dec 5 2014, 5:10pm

​Gotta get those sweet Mona Lisa pics. Image: ​Tom Arthur

The ubiquity of mobile devices mostly just makes going to a museum worse. Don't you kind of suspect that people who take pictures of every single piece of art in a museum never look at those pictures again? But MIT researchers have taken advantage of the thoughtless masses wandering around with their Bluetooth-enabled devices, and their findings might just make going to Louvre a more pleasant, or at least less terrible, experience.

Some art—music for instance—gets better with more people, but nothing harshes my museum buzz more than a crowd. On a recent Free Friday at MoMA, everything was going fine until we reached the Elaine Sturtevant exhibit—a cluster of rooms with only one point to enter or exit, at the end of a long hall. The post-Thanksgiving museum was relatively empty for a Free Friday, but Sturtevant's room was like the world's most reluctant mosh pit, with a lot more apologizing.

Free Fridays at the Louvre were pretty much the same way; the crowd around the Mona Lisa never seemed to abate save for perhaps in the deepest months of winter, but once you got into the palatial museum, you could have a whole room of Charles Le Bruns all to yourself.

The problem wasn't that there wasn't room for everyone, the problem was that everyone was in the same place.

To better understand where people are going, MIT researchers tracked people via anonymizing Bluetooth sensors. Over two days, 10 sensors were placed from the entrance up to the second floor, to watch how people strolled through the world's most visited museum.

The data is available here, with more approachable data organized here. It's worth checking out, if only because it kind of reminds me of Predator 2, if it were set at the Louvre. What they found is, obviously, also interesting; but it also makes it sound like improving traffic through the museum could be pretty difficult.

Basically, no matter how long you spend at the Louvre, you're going to find your way to a few key locations. Even people who are in the massive museum for an hour and a half or less still make their way to the Louvre's more famous works, they just spend a lot less time there, a tendency well known to New Wave fans:

Even when the number of rooms with exhibits increased, visitors, regardless of how long they stayed, became more selective and found their way to the same spots.

It's a real concentration of at the top here—people who go to the most visited museum, consistently finding their ways to the most visited spots. It also sounds like an existential problem—even you spend over six hours in the museum, trying to appreciate the hell out of every piece, you're still following the same paths as the people who are out in under 90 minutes. This discussion is probably better suited for a patio table at Les Deux Magots, but how futile does that sound: now matter how long you take, we all just end up in the same place?

To what degree can you get people to break up how they travel through the museum and what they see? Perhaps we all need to start really learning to appreciate Charles Le Brun.