What is a museum in the Digital Age?


Jenny Holzer, Guggenheim Installation (1989)

Whether you are a tech-savvy teen, a Wall Street business-type, a museum professional, or even a Luddite, you are aware that we are living in a Digital Age. It seems like everyone has their phone, tablet, and/or laptop with them at all times. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it can definitely be; Distractions, diversions, dilemmas exist on these screens and they are entirely digital. Our handheld data-streams aren’t inherently evil, but they are beginning to toe-the-line between helpful and harmful.

Alright, now that I have gotten the vague and dramatic pitfalls and blunders of the Digital Age out of the way, let’s talk about museums. How can museums embrace and integrate digital technology into the museum? How can museums use “big data” to improve visitor experiences? How can museums expand their collection and resources digitally? There are plenty of other good questions that are being asked and many that have yet to be thought of, but, I think that this is a good start.

Digital Technology in the Museum

Over the past five or six years, museums have really begun to incorporate digital technology into their exhibitions and events. With digital literacy increasing just as rapidly as technology advances, museum visitors are beginning to expect institutions to reflect this. In class, we discussed an entirely digital exhibition at Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, Monticello, that featured images, videos, text, and interactive screens composed entirely digital (and digitized) materials. The British Museum held a Virtual Reality Weekend last year where visitors could interact with the collection virtually while in the museum. The Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum features The Pen and Touch Tables that give visitors a level of novelty and interaction not before seen in a museum setting.

Outside the purview of specific exhibitions and events, many museums have developed mobile apps. While these apps range in their function and popularity among visitors, a few that we discussed in class include the Magic Tate Ball (The Tate Museum), MicroRangers (American Museum of Natural History), and Ask (Brooklyn Museum). Just because a museum has an app, though, if it doesn’t fulfill a need or stimulate the museum experience for the visitor, it might not be adding that much to the institution.

Museum websites also need to serve and meet the expectations of all visitors. Many people will visit a museum’s website in order to find information such as Hours of Operation, Admission Prices, Directions, etc. This information needs to be organized clearly and intuitive to find. If a potential museum-goer’s first experience with the institution is online and they encounter roadblocks, they may never plan an actual visit. Additionally, when people are online, they generally want to find the information they need quickly and easily, otherwise, they might give up. The expectations are high in the digital realm and museums that recognize this are poised to set visitors up for better and more seamless visits.

Big Data in the Museum

Once people are actually in the museum, another challenge arises. A topic that many museum professionals and visitors have been discussing in recent years surrounds the topic of “big data”. This is a heavy term that is being used more and more frequently by consumers, producers, and analysts. Without getting too deep into a conversation about big data and its potential pros and cons, how can museums utilize visitors’ data within the museum?

Museums, just like any other public venue, wants to know what they are doing well and what could be improved. At the heart of the museum, one of its missions is to collect and present objects with stories and significance to an audience. The “invisible hands of the curators” have been sculpting and presenting narratives to visitors for generations. If museum professionals can gain real-time data on audience dwell time, behavior, and interest from digital beacons to curate a better experience for the visitor, we should do it, right?

This notion of personalization is a huge topic in the digital world right now and rightfully so. The issue many people have with this automated personalization is that it come was a loss (or infringement) of their privacy. Collecting personal data from visitors’ cell phones and tracking their movement within the museum might have seemed like science fiction a few years ago, but it can be a reality and a strategy from many institutions today. I trust that museums would not use my data for anything nefarious, but I am still much more comfortable with an opt-in model. I could see a station in the main entryway or next to the ticketing desk with information describing what would happen, benefits and costs, if a visitor wanted to participate in an exchange of data for digitally-informed and personalized experience, but I do not like the idea of concealed data collecting.

Beyond the Museum

Cultivating the museum experience outside of an actual visit to the museum itself is another way in which museums can engage visitors digitally. A few years ago Google Arts & Culture made it possible to virtually walk through several prominent museums in the same way that you can navigate Google Maps via Street View. This allowed people from around the world to tour museums in different cities and countries without ever leaving the comfort of their homes. While this cannot replace the physical museum itself, it was a new way to generate interest and possibly even inspire people to travel to see these institutions in person. Another instance—coming from another direction—of the virtual museum is the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum. Right now this museum does not exist in the physical world, it is entirely digital. With interest and community support, this virtual museum may be built.

Probably one of the most basic and tangible ways to attract potential museum-goers to visit is making the collection available digitally. This by no means an easy task, but granting access to images of objects held be the museum can generate interest and excitement for those interested in seeing specific objects in a collection. Providing high-quality images, relevant information, and linking similar objects can increase visitor traffic and improve visitor experience.

These are just some of the options and projects concerned with rethinking and reshaping what a museum experience can be in the Digital Age.

Reading List 8/31/2016:
Lee Rainie, “Americans conflicted about sharing personal information with companies,” Pew Research Center, Dec. 30, 2015.
Aaron Straup Cope, MoMA Salon 13: Bigger Data, April 15, 2015. http://buzcast.com/Art/60940681/RD–Aaron-Straup-Cope–Salon-13-Bigger-Data–2015-04-1502:00:07
The Today Show, “Your Smartphone May Be Tracking Your Every Move,” Nov. 17, 2015.
Center for the Future of Museums, Predicting our Cultural Future: Is 2016 the year of musedata? posted Dec. 8, 2015. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2015/12/predicting-our-cultural-future-is-2016.html
Neha Mallik, “How Big Data is disrupting the Museum Experience,” February 13, 2015. http://blog.beaconstac.com/2015/02/how-big-data-is-disrupting-the-museum-experience/
Nina Simon, “Data in the Museum: Experimenting on People or Improving Their Experience?” on Museum 2.0 posted Wednesday, February 18, 2015. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2015/02/data-in-museum-experimenting-on-people.html
“Understanding the Motivations of Museum Audiences,” in Museum Informatics. Paul F. Marty , Katherine Burton Jones. Routledge, July 26, 2012.

One thought on “What is a museum in the Digital Age?

  1. Another great post, John. Looks like there’s a bit of combo between the lecture from session 2 and readings from session 3. If that’s the way you want to structure these, totally fine. You can also group all the readings and discussion from a single session together for a single post, if that makes sense. Up to you!


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