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The relationship between museums and data isn't the first thing that jumps to mind when entering the halls that tell the story of our world's history and highlight humankind's great works of art.
But as visitors look at Edward Hopper's Nighthawks in the Art Institute of Chicago, the massive skeletal models of dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History in New York, or walk through the rain forest at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, analytics are at play.
Like any enterprise with financial needs, museums collect and analyze data to help determine how to improve the user experience to attract visitors and drive revenue. Unlike most enterprises, however, many museums are nonprofit organizations and are held in the public trust. They also use analytics to understand how to best to serve their potential audience.
"Better data makes better museums," said Kwasi Hope Agyeman, founder and CEO of TravelSee, a startup software vendor that provides business intelligence tools for the museum industry.
Yet, despite both the financial and public service benefits of using data, the relationship between museums and data hasn't yet fully bloomed. As an analytics revolution has swept through most industries, many museums remain stuck in their old ways.
"Compared to the corporate world, museums are still in their infancy," said Susie Wilkening, founder of Wilkening Consulting in Seattle and the former director of the Saratoga Historical Society.
For the museums adapting to the modern tech era and making use of data, not only is the decision-making process better informed, but some are also even incorporating data into their exhibits.
For those that aren't using analytics, however, as in any other industry, the risk is being unable to compete.
Collecting and deploying data
Susie WilkeningFounder, Wilkening Consulting
Museums collect and use data in various ways.
Surveys are a significant source of information and can be done by museums of any scale. Focus groups are also an important way for museums and data to interact. And larger museums are also doing the technological gathering of data.
Museums can use bar codes to monitor the spending habits of visitors, and even extract information such as whether people traveling from far away spend more than people who live nearby. They can use electronic tracking to see how many people are passing through certain doors to determine the popularity of exhibits and features. And along the same lines, museums can use Wi-Fi to track the movement of visitors -- something that might strike some as uncomfortable but is consent-based and already being done by for-profit organizations.
"You can use data to train staff," Wilkening said. "You can use it for marketing to figure out what are desirable exhibitions, and you can use it to figure out the best bang for the buck."
At the Cleveland Museum of Art, museum officials used data extensively to help stage a 2018 exhibit entitled "The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s."
"We used different layers of evaluation," said Elizabeth Bolander, the museum's director of audience insights and services.
During planning, Bolander and her team worked with the museum's curator a year before the exhibit was scheduled to open. They talked with potential visitors and tested different images to best figure out how to frame the exhibit. After the exhibit opened, they conducted exit surveys to monitor the effectiveness of the museum's marketing efforts and compared its performance to those of past exhibits.
One of the insights they gleaned was that the exhibit's popularity was driven by the museum's digital marketing efforts more than any previous exhibit. Since then the museum has invested more heavily in digital advertising.
"From a business perspective, we started doing more weekly reports to see how the exhibit was performing, and we were not only able to exceed our goal, but exceed the highest projections," Bolander said. "And because of the way we moved things forward with keeping the visitors' interests front and center, we were able to drive visitor enjoyment."
The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, is an example of a museum using data to inform not simply the decision-making process, but to serve its mission as well.
Part of the museum's mission statement notes that it strives to spread knowledge not only about Nazi Germany's slaughter of primarily Jews from 1933-45, but also contemporary acts of genocide.
To that end, working with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, the Holocaust Museum developed the Early Warning Project to assess the potential risk of mass atrocities in countries around the world.
The tech adept and inept
As effectively as the relationship between museums and data is developing to advance the financial and moral obligations of some institutions, many others aren't making use of data at all.
An information gap is forming between the museums that have hundreds on staff with budgets of $100 million or more and the small niche museums that have comparatively miniscule budgets and just a handful of people on staff, if that.
Many global museums are investing in analytics, but they make up only a small percentage of the world's museums.
According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), just 10% of museums in the United States have budgets over $15 million, while 48% have budgets between $500,000 and $2.9 million. Meanwhile, museums with more than 200 people on staff make up only 6% of all U.S. museums, while 49% have between six and 30 on staff.
"There are 37,000 museums and the vast majority are very small," Wilkening said. "For those organizations, data is not on their radar screens."
The issue is twofold: cost and awareness.
Bolander noted that the Cleveland Museum of Art generates dashboards using Tableau and Excel, and that the museum recently invested in a business intelligence suite from Tessitura Network, which like TravelSee is geared toward cultural organizations. For museums working within the confines of a small budget, however, buying BI platforms and hiring data scientists aren't feasible.
"They're slow to adopt technology because it's expensive," Wilkening said.
But that doesn't mean museums don't need to be doing more data analysis. "If they don't catch up and start using basic standards for data and analytics, museums are going to disappear," Agyeman said.
According to the AAM, U.S. museums attract approximately 850 million visitors each year, and whether overall museum visitation is declining is unclear. But Agyeman's dire warning does speak to potential consequences for any industry competing for the public's entertainment attention.
"As consumers get more used to this being more customized to them, museums have to adapt to that landscape," Bolander said, though she said she doesn't necessarily share Agyeman's doomsday prediction.
The challenge for many museums, according to Agyeman, is education about analytics. They simply don't know what they're missing by not combining museums and data.
"They're unfamiliar with technological solutions and the rapid change technology is creating," he said. "They're not analyzing data, and that's how you lose relevancy."
The ones most at risk, are midsize museums, according to Wilkening.
Small museums may be somewhat immune given that they're so local that they tend to know many of their visitors on a personal level. Bigger museums, meanwhile, have largely caught on to the importance of melding of museums and data.
"[Midsize museums] have an information gap that can prevent them from making the most strategic decisions going forward as well as locking them out of funding opportunities since they won't have the data to show evidence of impact," Wilkening said. "The good news for those midsize museums, however, is that there are relatively low-cost tools out there they can use if they are willing to make that commitment."
Benefits of analytics
The combination of museums and data is powerful.
Monetarily, the benefits are obvious -- better information in the hands of the right people leads to better decisions. But with museums, adding analytics goes beyond the bottom line. Data analysis leads to a better visitor experience. It leads to better education.
Going forward, analytics advocates in museums hope the technology will even help museums reach underserved audiences, those groups that for various reasons -- lack of transportation options, for example -- aren't enjoying the benefits of museums. Museum analytics evangelists also hope that data will help museums reach a more diverse audience.
And analytics will help museums not only understand the people who are coming through their doors, but also who are the people who aren't.
"The interpretation of data is as much an important part of museums as the interpretation of the past or art or science," Wilkening said. "With good interpretation that data can help them do their work more efficiently. There has to be room made in a museum's operations to incorporate the data to make museums more impactful."