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Museums and the Web 2016: Understanding and activating the visitor - How can we do it?


In April 2016, we joined fellow museum and tech colleagues at the Millennium Biltmore, a hotel in downtown LA, replete with a glamorous history and elaborate architectural flourishes (and an Art Deco swimming pool!). Museums and the Web 2016 brought together an equally exciting history of museum challenges, featuring varied front lining topics of the field to inspire cross disciplinary investigations. 



The conference began with some drama, in the guise of keynote speaker Corey Doctorow.  He told us about the security (or lack thereof) of our information, the politics of collecting massive amounts of data (big data), and, most importantly the morality of big data.  Data is power, but is it too much power?  What can we do with data that will actually improve the museum experience?  First things first: define what “improving a museum experience” means, and then figure out a way to collect all of the data that would speak to this museum experience.  Check out his speech here:  (And prepared to be scared…very scared. Your Gmail will never look the same.)

To investigate some answers to these questions, we heard from experts at leading cultural institutions such as the British Museum.  We also heard from experts at companies like Microsoft, and leaders in the technology and software fields with backgrounds in Computer and Information Science.  The mix of perspectives and conversations was unexpected and enlightening. 

Big Data.  What is it, and how can museums harness it?  Angie Judge, founder of a software company that specifically works with cultural institutions, Dexhibit ( ), spoke about how to learn what your visitors are doing, why, how often, and in what order.  Using sensors, algorithms, omni-channel displays and cross platform capabilities, this software can tell museum professionals where visitors may be lingering, about total and segmented visitation numbers, and general traffic flows.  With this information, museum professionals will get a better sense of audience habits, and how they can change or tweak experiences to optimize them for the visitor.

In other sessions we heard about the idea of “deep personalization” and the searching behaviors of visitors.  Deep personalization is the idea that visitors have a “learning profile”- the typical ways they might learn about a work of art.  These can be categorized as: self-directed, topic-based, multidisciplinary object interpretation, community knowledge, and informal and formal knowledge networks.  With this nuanced understanding, museums could deploy highly tailored matrices of information for their visitors.  Angie Judge touched on a similar idea, describing it as a kind of real time curation for each visitor. 

Throughout the conference we were asked to think: what is the visitor experiencing, and how can technology make this experience even more engaging?  Technology for technology’s sake is not the point, it must serve a purpose.   Lucky for us, it can do a lot: both in allowing us to collect information on what exactly the visitor experience is, as well as creating new systems and products to change it for the better. 

*There is a growing community interested in “musedata” and big data.  Check out their FB group here: On Twitter, look for  #musedata.