Museums and the museum-minded are constantly re-evaluating how to engage with their public, both on and off site, in new, interactive and lasting ways. Designing an exhibition can no longer exclude the web audiences who may never set foot in the museum but have accessed a curated touch point of the exhibit on the web through thoughtfully constructed interactive websites, mobile apps or social media happenstance. Through this new age of engagement offered by technology, newfound data and analytics offers a spectrum of insights from the shifting demographic identities of its audience down coordinate-specific movements of a single visitor across the exhibit landscape. What is the value of this data to museums and its curators? What does the collection and fascination with data mean for the authoritative museum paradigm as we’ve known it to be?
Mobile technology in particular has the power to collect a massive amount of data about the museum visitor experience. Take for example The O at the Museum of New and Old (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia. The O is a sleek, sexy mobile app guide alternative to wall labels which is based on experiential and integrated immersion of information. As recounted by Seb Chen, the Head of Digital, Social & Emerging Technologies at the PowerHouse Museum (see how the PowerHouse and other museums drive change), it removes wall labels from the traditional museum-visitor relationship by using wifi triangulation to pinpoint your location within the galleries and populates the neighboring objects in your immediate area as a list of thumbnails on your mobile device. Clicking on the thumbnail offers a brief contextual history of the piece.
Three features of The O distinguish it from its mobile-app peers: Ideas, Gonzo and Media. Ideas are food-for-thought material (quotes, statements and conversation starters) relevant to the object in observation. Gonzo are the museum’s owner’s reflections or responses about the piece. Media is a collection of raw audio files streams of the people in candid, unfiltered interviews in natural conversational settings like cafes – stripping away the haughty air that often accompanies audio tours.
Visitors are also able to “love” or “hate” the objects they’re viewing. By simply adding your email address to the device at an earlier point, your experience is logged and saved. By the time you complete your meanderings, your visit is emailed to you as a link to their website with a log of the objects you have seen and the ones you may have missed. Your movement through the MONA is saved as an online visualization that can be played back on a timeline.
To the user it offers an active role in their individual learning process. They are rewarded with new knowledge about art, history and the broader world beyond them and about themselves in the form of personal data. Their likes and dislikes have been recorded. What they’ve seen has been stored and what is left is an electronic journal of what is left to explore.
For the museum, The O allows them access to data about what has been the most interesting and relevant to their visitors through the aggregated tallies about what they’ve loved and hated. The collective maps of what visitors found to be natural pathways within the exhibit, offers feedback about effective exhibit design.
But what of the losses gained by the continuous collection of data inherent to the adoption of mobile technology? In a recent study by Pocket Proof and Learning Times about museums and mobile technology, 53 percent of museums either already have mobile or intend to have mobile as part of their visitor experience. As more and more institutions move towards this integration, and more data is made accessible by virtue of its use, does the curator’s voice and vision get muffled by statistics? Perhaps not.
In the past, the curator and the institution was the only voice. It spoke only of a scripted, unchanging history with an elected few as its heroes. And today, because of technology and informed by data, I would argue that the voice is shared between the institution and its community. Information is built together.