The Impact of Data and Technology on Museums

As a lover of art working at a fast-paced technology startup in Austin, Texas, I often find myself thinking about the interaction of four worlds: art, community, education and technology. One topic of conversation that seems to be constantly arising in this intersection is how technology – and data – can play a role in the advancement of community engagement for the Art and Museum industry. Art and technology has a long-standing history, from Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man blend of art and mathematics to Virtual Reality Exhibits, that blend advancing technologies and the art experience — these fields are never far from the other’s mind.

There are some traditional ways where technology and art are intersecting: Digital Art, Graphic Design, Interactive Art, and the coding, platforms, hardware and software that goes along with those mediums. These are being taken to the next level with Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) being brought into the Museum curating experiences available to the public. However, with the increase in Big Data and the technologies that are arising to solve “Big Data Problems” are there new areas where technology, data and the art community are starting to overlap?

I started by looking at technology trends. One of the largest trends in the last few years is around “open sourced” information. Today, people expect to have access to knowledge and information in real time. However, the data and information that is out there can be overwhelming and disjointed. Information is the currency for museums. They display a curated set of information, ideas and collections to the public in a way that is both educational and moving. But with this move to open source, how can museums effectively curate and still give the community at large access to the larger picture?

One way that is being used by Museums – like the Tate – is to create a full digital catalog of their exhibit and allowing people to interact with them online. Another way would be to use some AR throughout the exhibit, not just limit it to contemporary art exhibits. By having interactive applications, Google Glass or screens with the the art being observed, visitors can gain deeper information on the piece or exhibit they are looking at.

While VR and AR are incredibly “hot” technologies across all industries, they are now being considered for museums more holistically as well. The American Alliance of Museums 2016 Trendswatch states “as VR and AR experiences become both affordable and widely accessible, museums will need to sharpen their positioning and value propositions with their communities.” How museums decide to incorporate will impact their community reach and success of exhibits.

People today are also expecting personalized experiences and services from all public institutions. Museums can combine the open knowledge technologies, with member applications to deliver these expected personal experiences. For example, the CHIP Project took this approach and let visitors design a personalized tour based on their preferences and adjust their tours in real time.

What if we took this a step further and gathered more data at how visitors were interacting exhibits? The Dallas Museum of Art received a grant to help address where visitors are spending time? Their visitors are able to “check-in” at specific pieces, exhibits and areas. Combining that data with technology created through the grant, the museum can now definitively see their visitors behaviors, such as what exhibits the love and which they ignore.

A key thing to note here, is that while all this data exists out in the art universe, you need to be collecting the data and have the right technology to get the answers you need, or your museum will not be able to leverage the data. As stated in the American Alliance of Museums 2015 Trendswatch, Museums need “to generate enough mass of data to detect patterns.”

As I consider all the ways in which technology and data can impact the museums and art lovers experience, I was drawn back to this quote from Christine Coulson of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

“Art moves physically within this warren so it can do a different kind of moving – of souls and minds – when it is in the galleries.”

This sentiment goes to the core of what I love about museums. They strive to teach, invoke emotion and engage both individuals and communities. By adding a sophistication of data and technology on top of the physical movement of art, I believe that museums will be able to move “souls and minds” at a much larger scale that speaks to more individuals and communities both inside and outside of their walls.