On Big Data and Museums

I just read something that aggravated me. While this is a thoroughly uncommon experience while scavenging the internet, I felt it merited a response. 

The article argues that museums are integrating big data tools into museums in order to become more profitable and shift decision-making responsibilities from curators to visitor data. Not only are these assertions extremely flawed, but the underlying assumptions the author makes about the role of museums in society and the types of questions big data can answer show a lack of concern for underserved visitors and and inexperience using data to inform decisions.  


Museums should not be in the business of dictating "the appropriate" way to experience art. The use of technology in our daily lives is inevitable. Instead of becoming increasingly dogmatic about how and when people can use these tools and chastising common behaviors like googling a term or taking selfies, museums should support visitors' desires to make exhibits informative and memorable. Visitors should have the right to experience museums and make-meaning on their own terms. 


While there certainly are people who benefit from quiet, contemplative visits, that type of experience requires familiarity and comfort with art museums. Those people are typically well-educated adults. Art museum visitation, more so than that of other public institutions, skews heavily towards people with college or advanced degrees. 

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It's not wrong to appeal towards a more academic crowd, but it's important to be aware of who can feel intimated or excluded. Audio tours, integrated technology, and yes, the "dreaded" screens do not only exist for museums to lure visitors into their gift stores; they provide necessary tools to make museums more inclusive of traditionally underserved audiences. Families, people with disabilities, non-English speakers, and less experienced museum-goers are just some of the groups that benefit from additional interpretive tools.  

If museums are only designed to support well-educated, affluent adults without children, they are undermining their missions and doing a serious injustice to people who stand to benefit the most from their presence.


As a new and trendy idea, "big data" is a concept that is either painted as a miracle fount of innovation or an early warning sign of inevitable robot take-over. 

The author seems to fear than an accurate understanding of visitation patterns will corrupt the curatorial process and turn art museums into profit mongers. I am not a quantitative researcher or statistician, so I'm not fully informed on the methods or modes of analysis the article referenced. But from my experience in visitor studies, I know that no amount of data can replace the creative process. It can answer certain kinds of questions about visitor behavior, but data alone cannot tell you how to design intuitive, meaningful experiences with art.

At its best, data can help museums ask better questions and identify meaningful opportunities for improvement. For example, if visitation data showed that visitors rarely spend time in a specific gallery, it does not mean the museum should eliminate it, it simply means they need to explore why this gallery is less successful and how it could be improved. If a survey on visitor demographics revealed that Hispanic visitors are disproportionately underrepresented, the museum could explore why that is and try to improve their relationship with those visitors. Or, if data revealed that an exhibit of an artist who used multi-sensory mediums was really well received by the autism community, the museum could explore setting aside special hours in the exhibit for families with autistic children or curate other experiences that serve those visitors' needs. 

Ultimately, big data and technology are value-neutral tools whose opportunities for improving visitor experience far outweigh their potential for exploiting profit. Access to new types of information cannot corrupt the hearts of museum employees. Museums exist first and foremost to inform, inspire, and preserve our cultural legacy. Data, no matter how big, will never change that.