Big Debate over Big Data in Museums

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November 2016

As recently discussed in the Wall Street Journal, data mining is increasingly being used within museums in order to collect information about guests. In the same way that Big Data is used in retail settings to monitor customer behaviour so that the retail environment can be modified in a way that increases sales, museums are turning to visitor data in order to discover details such as which collection items attract the most attention, which exhibit designs are preferred by guests and which marketing strategies work best for gift shops and museum merchandise.

Big Data are large and complex data sets used to reveal and understand certain patterns and trends. These data sets can then be used in predictive ways. Within the museum context, this means that analysis of data can allow museum professionals to understand the most common patterns of visitor behaviour within the museum and to tailor exhibit design, collections, educational activities, and other museum events in a way that maximizes visitor numbers, engagement and participation.

The Dallas Museum of Art, for example, has a frequent-visitor program called DMA Friends, which works in a way that is similar to the mobile applications Swarm or Foursquare: guests use their phones to “check in” at various spots throughout the museum, which allows them to win points that can be used toward a variety of rewards such as free parking or tickets to museum lectures. The data collected by DMA Friends allows the museum to better understand visitor behaviour and preferences, such as which activities attract the most check-ins, where their visitors are from and how often they visit.

The downside of Big Data

Many have concerns about consumer trends entering the not-for-profit arts environment. While data mining might be expected in modern retail environments, it seems out of place in cultural industries. There is a worry about the shift away from producing exhibits and collections that are historically or artistically significant, and toward producing a museum experience aimed at pleasing the crowd.

Privacy and security are risks that come with monitoring visitor behaviour, especially when the monitoring occurs through visitors’ mobile devices, as it does in the case of museum applications using location-based services. iBeacons, which are increasingly being adopted by museums, not only deliver location-specific content to visitors’ phones and direct them to other points of interest within the museum, but collect information about how guests move through the museum and where they spend the most time. In most cases, visitors are required to consent to location-based services, either by downloading the applications that enable them or by turning Bluetooth on when they enter the museum. This provides some protection against privacy violations, but security risks still exist.

Potential benefits

Others argue that use of visitor data is necessary in order to ensure that museums remain relevant and useful to their guests. Without visitor data, understanding of visitor behaviour and preferences is limited to visitor numbers, which provides no insight into how guests are interacting with and experiencing the museum space. Another argument for the use of Big Data is that it helps museums make more convincing appeals to sponsors, allowing them to secure the funding they need by demonstrating the relevance of their museum, exhibitions and collections through visitor analytics. Data can be used not only for marketing and sales purposes but for educational aims, allowing museums to discover what is most effective in teaching audiences about the works and collections in the museum.

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