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Neither money nor jellybeans: the need for better approaches to measuring cultural value by Emma Blomkamp

About three weeks ago, Tony Butler contributed a post entitled ‘Museums, well-being and valuation: starting a debate’ in which he outlined the methodology and findings of a new project called Happy Museum Project, which attempts to evaluate and measure the contribution museums can make to the well-being agenda, and expresses it in terms of monetary value. The question of measuring impact of a diverse nature, and the problem of quantifying and articulating value in ways that are relevant and helpful to the policy-making process are a hot topic of debate (indeed, have been for some time) and are likely to remain so for the foreseable future. Tony therefore knew that his project and the approach it has taken would have been likely to elicit both interest, further questions and criticism too. Emma Blomkamp (@blogkamp) is sympathetic to the difficulty of meeting the evaluation and measurement challenge, but in her mini-essay questions whether expressing value in monetary terms is desirable or in fact questionable. The debate starts here! I hope readers might like to participate via the comments section, or by volunteering for a full guest post reflection (in which case, please get in touch with me at e.belfiore@warwick.ac.uk).


In his recent #culturalvalue piece, Tony Butler suggested that the government could measure the value of cultural participation by using methods from welfare economics that estimate the monetary value of the impacts on wellbeing of, for instance, visiting museums. As a researcher interested in the (potential) use of wellbeing indicators in cultural policy, I enjoyed reading this post. I am really concerned, however, by the underlying assumption that we can’t express value without putting a price tag on it.

When I alluded to this issue over on Twitter, Happy Museum suggested that the ‘study could have just as [well] used jelly beans as a measure.’ But it didn’t. Nobody would take seriously a report that concluded, ‘People value visiting museums at about 16,842 jellybeans per year.’ And even if it did, the research would still be commodifying the value of museums and making them equivalent to any easily replaceable consumer good.

The arts, culture and heritage sector is not the only one to face these measurement dilemmas. Similar metrics have been developed to enumerate value in health and the environment, but these innovative measures are fraught with practical and ethical issues. In health, the Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY) measures the burden of disease and disability in relation to the quantity and quality of life in order to, for instance, compare the cost effectiveness of different treatments. But a range of personal, material and socio-cultural factors influence how each individual and society copes with particular health problems, so QALY is a rather crude instrument (Manderson 2005). Environmental economics, meanwhile, has developed methods to determine financial liability for ecological damage, such as in the major legal cases related to maritime oil spills (of which Marion Fourcade provides an interesting analysis in this lecture). Just because these sectors have gone down the tricky path of monetisation doesn’t mean arts and culture must follow.

In the debate on cultural value in the UK, there seems to be a certain level of fatalism about using financial measures. The Green Book says that all government proposals must be subject to a cost-benefit analysis, which means comparing the costs and benefits associated with any given policy using the common metric of money. Hence it must be so. This is the crux of Dave O’Brien’s DCMS report on measuring cultural value, the Happy Museum research on the wellbeing effects of museums, and various other ‘economic impact’ studies used for arts advocacy. It’s not like the UK is a democracy and the Green Book could ever be changed, right? (It’s risky using sarcasm in a text like this, but I hope you get my point.) Anyway, do we really believe a cost-benefit analysis is being used for every government decision? Sure, neoclassical economics is a powerful language at present, but it is not the only way of thinking and knowing about the world in which we live. I’m sure we can all think of government policies and programmes that were not subject to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, which is time-consuming, highly technical, and quite expensive. Nor should every decision be based primarily on economic valuation. There are all kinds of other ways of conducting a rigorous analysis, using methods and tools appropriate to the particular object or field one is studying.


A major issue with cost-benefit analysis or any method of contingent valuation is that we have to convert everything we’re talking about into the same metric, i.e. money. This is so that we can directly compare the value of, say, going to a museum against watching TV. The idea is that politicians can then compare the benefits of these things against each other and invest in whatever has the greatest wellbeing impacts. In theory, this sounds like a great way to make evidence-based policy. The trouble is, this means we need to be able to compare going to a museum with various unrelated things that might also impact on our wellbeing, like having knowledge about healthy eating and not being discriminated against in the workplace. And it’s assumed that we can use the same methods and the same currency to evaluate these very different things.

This is especially problematic when people are asked to put a price tag on something they would never buy or sell. Imagine if you were asked how much money you would be willing to accept to be compensated for the loss of someone you love. Surely I’m not the only person who would never accept any amount of money in exchange for the life of someone in my family – even on a bad day – or, for that matter, any other human being. So how could I reasonably estimate the monetary value of a person’s life? There are various other things we value that most of us don’t think should be bought or sold – like friendship, human organs, political office, freedom of expression, and so on – and which we might struggle, or refuse, to assess their financial value. As Professor Russell Keat (1999) argues, we should place some cultural goods in this category of things ‘money can’t buy,’ because they expand our understanding of ourselves and of others, enabling us to reflect on our wellbeing and the lives we live. If we can only access and evaluate cultural artefacts and experiences in a market setting, we risk only producing and consuming products that meet our existing preferences, and never being challenged or encouraged to imagine alternatives.

Rejecting money as a universal indicator doesn’t need to mean rejecting the concept of value or practice of calculation. The market might be an effective arbiter of value for some goods and services, but there are also various other ways to evaluate artefacts and experiences – by allocating time, awarding prizes, making recommendations, writing reviews, or giving a grade, ranking or some other kind of assessment. We have a multitude of sensible ways for expressing value outside of dollars and pounds, Euros and Yen. We could, for instance, look to the education sector for models of standards-based assessment, or reconsider the McMaster review for the DCMS, which recommended a new system for evaluating excellence and innovation in arts policy based on self-assessment and peer review rather than top-down targets. I would also suggest that we look to qualitative research methods such as interviews, ethnography, focus groups, and various types of literary and content analysis to find rigorous yet appropriate ways of articulating and assessing cultural value.

I am not suggesting that we abandon quantitative methods in policy-making or research, or that cost-benefit analysis is never appropriate, but I am arguing that we should not expect to standardise cultural value in a way that would enable cultural policy to be made by putting a bunch of numbers onto a spreadsheet without making value judgements or encountering any technical or ethical issues. Some costs and benefits cannot be readily translated into a financial value, and there are strong arguments against using money as the only measure of value. Rather than putting too much energy into research based on neoclassical economics, the arts and academic communities should be exploring various other ways to represent the multiple understandings and dimensions of cultural value. This way, we could help to produce relevant and ethical tools and knowledge for the calculations and judgements that are necessarily involved in cultural policy-making.



Emma Blomkamp is currently completing her double-badged PhD on urban cultural policy and outcome evaluation practices in New Zealand and Australian local government through the University of Auckland’s Department of Political Studies and the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Cultural Partnerships. A board member of Show Me Shorts Film Festival, Emma holds a Master of Arts (Hons) in Film, Television and Media Studies and has studied Media and Cultural Management at Sciences-Po Paris. Emma’s research has been published in the International Journal of Cultural Policy, International Journal of Cultural Studies, and the Asia Pacific Journal of Arts and Cultural Management.







3 Responses to “Neither money nor jellybeans: the need for better approaches to measuring cultural value by Emma Blomkamp”

  1. Given that this is essentially a question of how we choose to spend our time, it seems to me that there is much potential in the idea of using units of time as the currency of cultural value, and to do so without subsequently converting these units back into money. After all, unlike money, we all have exactly the same number of hours at our disposal – 24 a day! This, incidentally, is the basic premise of Arnold Bennett’s wonderfully wise and witty little book, ‘How to live on 24 hours a day’ (1910), which I recommend to all. Indeed, cultivating an interest in the arts is one of Mr Bennett’s strongest recommendations for a life lived to the full.

    But Mr Bennett also offers these words of caution, “You need not be devoted to the arts, not to literature, in order to live fully. The whole field of daily habit and scene is waiting to satisfy that curiosity which means life, and the satisfaction of which means an understanding heart”. We do well to consider these words when we try to measure cultural value in isolation from the myriad choices that each of us makes daily.

    Tom chooses to spend one hour watching contemporary dance at his local arts centre; Dick runs through the woods for 60 minutes; Harry, between 4.45pm and 5.45pm on a Saturday afternoon, enjoys a quiet pint after the match.

    Each man has spent one twenty-fourth of his daily income so we might say that, for Harry, a peaceful hour with a pint has an equivalent cultural value to that which Dick assigns to sweaty woodland gallop and Tom reserves for the passive appreciation of human bodies in motion to music. Never mind that Tom’s pastime has cost him £14, Dick’s was entirely free and Harry’s cost £7.10 (two pints of beer and packet of pork scratchings, neither of which form a necessary part of his subsistence diet, I hasten to add, before you quibble…); each man has given up one hour, that might have been spent on any number of alternative activities, to his chosen pleasure.

    Ah, I know you Quality Surveyors of Cultural Value will find any number of ways to complicate this simple equation…

    “But our time is not all ours to spend as we choose! To feed, clothe and house my family I am obliged to spend eight hours a day populating an Excel spreadsheet when I would rather be writing poetry!”

    “But Tom will remember that bit when the dancer was trembling, naked apart from a cowboy hat and leather chaps, for years, whereas Dick will do the same Saturday run every week! Surely, with the benefit of hindsight, Tom will value that hour more highly that Dick?”

    “But Dick is twenty years old with a whole lifetime of opportunity ahead of him, in which to enjoy dance, beer and running; Harry is 79, and the doctor told him yesterday that he only has six months to live!”

    Good luck to you! After all, who am I to judge how you spend your time?

    Posted by John Sprackland (@johnsprackland) | August 8, 2013, 3:51 pm
  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, John.

    As much as I enjoyed your anecdotes, and I acknowledge that some of us have more or less “free time” than others, I don’t wish to complicate this simple equation. I think minutes make more sense than cents or pence as a currency of cultural value.

    This leads me to think about time-banking as an alternative economy… perhaps we Quality Surveyors of Cultural Value actually need to be thinking more broadly and critically about the whole market economy model on which our lives and work are based….

    Posted by Emma Blomkamp (@blogkamp) | August 15, 2013, 12:17 pm


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