Big data is transforming the information available to museums and others in the experience sector. It’s already improving our understanding of visitors. Will big data also disrupt exhibition planning and design?
Big data is big news. Everyone’s talking about what we can do with all this information our smart phones and computers generate: where we went today, who we talked to, what we said and what we brought. Everything is measurable, and everything is quantifiable. But big data is more than just Amazon pushing add-on sales at you, or those Google ads which chase you from page to page. Big data is faster collection of huge amounts of detailed information. Big data builds a picture not just of you, but of a group or culture. Big data will tell us more about what is happening now, and it may teach us more about human emotions, habit and behaviour than we’ve ever known.
The potential hangs there for us to do something positive, useful and meaningful with what we learn from this data: everything from improving commute times to tackling disease. With instantaneous collection of data, in some areas anyway, response time has already been compressed. Big data supports better and quicker responses, particularly useful for epidemic outbreaks or disaster relief. But what’s all this got to do with museums? It's not like we run a hospital or emergency relief agency.
Big data changing visitor analysis
Many museums are already using the tech side of big data to find out what visitors do in our spaces and to offer additional layers of content. Big data powered analytics allow museums to take the temperature of an exhibition’s popularity with visitors. This is not new. Museums who can have been collecting serious visitor data for years. The unique potential of technology like iBeacons is that they show you the travel paths of individual visitors, which can be collated into serious numbers, the heat maps show you exactly which objects or spaces are most or least visited, and the dwell times show how long people are spending at each spot.
“If the numbers indicate people aren’t so interested in a coming show, it might be reworked, postponed or moved to a smaller gallery. 'It’s really a culture shift in museums for the curators to pay attention not just to what’s significant art historically, but also what’s perhaps on trend,' says Kristin Prestegaard, the museum’s chief engagement officer." [The Minneapolis Institute of Arts] Wall Street Journal.
This immediacy and the detail of this big data gives us a great gift but like a new puppy for Christmas, one that will need care and training. Data with this speed and depth will allow serious discussion about what visitors actually want. Many experience institutions can work big data into a process which fosters responsive exhibition design to enhance what they offer, and change or remove what’s on offer in response to the data. This is not fundamentally new for other sectors. Retail does it all the time and will delete a product line if it's not popular.
But for history and science museums it's not so straight forward. We can’t just delete an unpopular part of the story. What if we learn the dwell times for an exhibition on disease in koalas or the Holocaust are short? Will this become a reason to not tell the difficult stories? The stories that we need to hear. Will it be too tempting to use the data to ignore the our responsibility to tell the tough stories? Or will we pick up the challenge hidden in this data and dig through to find the reasons why people don’t engage with a particular object or story? It may have nothing to do with the actual content but more to do with how those stories are told. Big data may present us with the opportunity to improve our storytelling tactics, not just throw out the stories.
There’s more to big data and iBeacons than just tracking visitors
The question now is what does all this big data mean for the actual content or the stories we tell. Big data can become a useful source to aid the research that underpins exhibitions and objects selected. Business and government are already accessing the abundance of data to transform not just how they operate but also their policy responses. Here are three ways the experience sector could use the data already being collected to inform exhibition development:
- We can track through credit card data where people are spending their money and what they buy. Not just people, but demographic groups. The smashed avocado debate in Australia could be informed by real data. Are today’s millennials spending more in cafes than their parents or grandparents? This could be a useful source of information for an exhibition exploring Australia’s passion for home ownership.
- Information on music downloads becomes a source to feed into an exhibition on music as social commentary or a historical retrospective of an artist or a genre. Is consumer interest in catalogue sales (music 18 months old) a reflection of consumers updating their technology, taking advantage of greater, easier access to older music or does it say something else about nostalgia?
- Health data on diet and activity is being impartially collected daily by smartphone apps. What will this tell us about the intersection between lifestyle, behaviour and disease? How will this change our knowledge of the human body, and how we discuss the body in exhibitions?
Museums have often been reluctant to comment too quickly, particularly on current affairs and history. This is a practice not shared by others in the experience industry, like zoos and national parks, where protection and advocacy is a key part of the mission. In history, distance between the event and the retelling can aid reflection and insight. But those timeframes have been shattered by public access to information and tools to tell stories quickly to a wide audience. The rest of the world aren’t waiting to tell their version of the story. People respect museums because we do think things through. We consider the sources and tell the story with consideration. Yet the question does have to be asked how much time is enough? In a world searching for meaning and context, is it possible and appropriate for museums to respond more quickly with considered story telling?
“Most of that data is meaningless until someone adds some interpretation of it. Someone adds a narrative around it.” Jack Dorsey Twitter/Square Founder