THR Web Features   /   January 5, 2015

Art for Data’s Sake

Leann Davis Alspaugh

Estimote beacon via SlashGear.

( Estimote beacon via SlashGear.)


Estimote beacon via SlashGear.


Whatever happened to contemplation? One of the last bastions of quiet reflection used to be the art museum. Once through the museum’s heavy doors, past the security guards and the moneychangers at the admission desk, one could enter the galleries where beautiful objects offered edification, pleasure, and even repose. First stop, the favorites, and then on to a serendipitous encounter with something around the next corner.

And then came the audio guides. Plastic headphones clamped to their skulls, the dutiful strode through the galleries, stopping dead center in front of the museum’s star pieces. Immobilized by the honeyed narrative, the spectators stood, a frenzied buzzing emanating from their heads. Occasionally, they called to their companions in comically loud voices. But most of the time, they just blocked traffic and took the best vantage point.

Now, we have the inevitable advent of the smartphone into the museum gallery. This one-stop portal has mostly replaced the audio guide and visitors now read or listen to downloaded guides through their own earbuds. But just like every other form of access that we allow via smartphone, this is a two-way interaction. From the minute you enter the building—before, if you bought tickets online—you are also contributing personal information to the museum’s newly minted “engagement” department. Don’t be surprised if, while you linger in front of a Caravaggio, a coupon for a cappuccino in the museum café pops up on your phone.

In addition to what we volunteer by visiting websites and completing surveys, many museums are learning more about us through a new form of data mining technology: digital beacons. These small wireless transmitters, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Guggenheim, for example, can track how fast visitors move through the galleries and which pieces draw the greatest crowds. The Polish developers of the Estimote digital beacon call their product a “super small computer,” one compatible with all major smart devices and energy efficient. The pastel-colored, irregularly faceted carapace also makes the Estimote uniquely recognizable, a design improbably incorporating the organic and the high tech. The beacons work through a combination of Bluetooth signals and cloud-based data storage. Suddenly made aware of their “innovation deficit,” museums find themselves rushing to hire data analysts and IT departments to crunch numbers and troubleshoot servers.

The pressure to exploit new technology is strong for museums, as one official noted in a recent Wall Street Journal report, to discover not simply “what’s significant art historically but also what’s perhaps on trend.” Big data can be used to point curators toward what people really want to see in exhibitions. “The customer is king” is marketing’s most basic lesson, but in this case only practicable if exhibitions are assembled like products plucked off of a warehouse shelf. Most museum exhibitions are the product of years of planning and negotiation, not to mention navigating logistics, customs, and insurance complications. And let’s not even think about placating private donors or ensuring that artworks are real and have uncontested rights and provenances. To add to these challenges the pursuit and identification of fleeting trends hardly seems a way to enhance the museum experience or to help it fulfill its educative function.

The connection of one’s phone with the museum doesn’t end, however, when you exit through the gift shop. The newly hired data analysts at art museums in Dallas and New York are tasked with finding ways to bring visitors back, to encourage them to invite friends, and to entice long-term revenue in the form of membership fees, or—jackpot!—artwork donations or corporate sponsorships.

Museum officials admit that they are trying to find ways to minimize “the creepiness factor,” but the fact remains that none of this technology would be viable were we not willing accomplices. In thrall to our smartphones, we are inviting new and ever more intrusive invasions of our privacy in the name of convenience, points, and rewards. When data mining turns a museum into a frequent-flier program, the result is commerce not culture.

It used to be that museums were satisfied with allowing the art to speak for itself. Have museums lost confidence in culture to be self-sustaining? Can we no longer trust our institutions to fulfill their mission of enrichment unless there also be a monetary incentive? For years, the arts have struggled to assert their value to society strictly in terms of education. Learning, however, is a reciprocal experience for which the individual is just as much responsible as the orchestra, the opera house, and the art museum.

Big data’s priority is quantifiable information. It is not unreasonable for museums to want to improve the visitor’s experience and to seek to understand why crowds are reliably huge for Impressionist shows and modest for those centered on the Czech avant-garde. But to reduce a museum experience to the laws of supply and demand devalues not only the art itself but also the curators’ years of education and expertise—connoisseurship on which we rely in institutions that position themselves as cultural arbiters. This age is frequently called media-saturated, yet here in the art museum—a singular repository of edifying images—we may be quickly losing the ability to see.