It was not quite long ago that I was sitting down and analyzing numbers from my latest museum project, its social metrics, visitor counts, google analytics and other random geeky tools I dug up or chanced upon from the Internet. And it crossed my mind, that i was merely peeking into a singular window of statistics and data, getting sunk into a data wormhole of one museum and being close to myopic in vision and judgement. Yes, I had plenty of metrics to drool on, and they would be enough for me to beat my drum in another adrenalized conference. But I had a nagging feeling that without any reference data, metrics of other museums in my neighborhood, their audience activities, and data that could be compared with, I had no right to claim that my project was successful! After all, in today’s world we are all interconnected and that includes museums too. And what about social change affected by my project? Did my data in any form displayed that? Or initiating acts of socially conscious projects that I have been working on for the last few years? How could I be sure that by merely gathering social metrics data of a museum project that I had effected some sort of new conscientious or altruistic thinking among my audience?

I had that feeling once again when Colleen Dilenschneider from IMPACTS in this years MuseumNext 2014 at NewCastleGateshead ploughed through heaps and heaps of cross-referenced data collected from multiple museums and cultural institutions worldwide and came up with beautifully germinated statistical outcomes that is invaluable to any museum.  SLIDES from MuseumNext2014. She confirmed what I had started to suspect very recently (forgive me for being naive). That, without Big Data across the board, we cannot just come across relevant hypotheses for the functioning and developing of our museums. A museum’s own statistics and datasets are useless unless they are weighed in comparison with other and a broad range of datasets. Museum’s don’t exist in isolation and every city has an ecosystem of museums and cultural institutions whose visitor statistics and social network outreach affect each other to a certain degree. This is the kind of data, Big Data that I need to look into. This is what will affect how I fashion new strategies for digital engagement for any museum that lies within the scope of my immediate geographical and digital landscape.

Surely, the Datafication of museums has been on already for a few years. Vast amounts of data are being produced every minute by our cultural institutions. The ability to quantify audience data and metadata through a variety of apps, social networks and devices could allow museums to reach and connect with audiences on a more granular level than ever before. Most museums are into or have already begun collecting data about their collections, visitors and online reach as I write. At MuseumNext, we heard about the Art140 project by MOMA (another fascinating example of data driven art understanding) an online sharing of commentary, appreciation and criticism of its collections through 140 characters on Twitter. This is another example of online data collection by a museum, albeit to understand its audience, its linguistic variations and makeup. Colleen also showed us a few examples of just how big data surveys can lead us to new understandings. From digital to physical touch, (and that the data across the board confirmed this) she presented how big data actually backs an infinite cycle of touch that whirls around good business strategies, mission work and social change amidst communities. I re-learned that a museum’s Mission and goals were high on the list of coveted characteristics and that Social Change was a desirable act on part of much of museum audiences. And, at Newcastle, I belatedly realized that I may not be afflicted with Museum HPV (High propensity Visitor, a term introduced by Colleen) but many of my friends and colleagues are. And that being an HPV might lead to more acts of social deeds!

IMG_6045Yes, I would like to think that actions taken by a Museum to implement a Social project would benefit and affect to some degree its local user communities. But to what extent does it really? Are there metrics to show for it? What about the other Museum down the street (exit through the smoothie trucks) that negates all your good work and takes away your loyal crowd by throwing up another blockbuster superhero-worship exhibition? Should we not then try to coordinate regional programs and exhibitions if we are neighbors, and if we do decide to act for our communities? I wonder what Big Data says about this?

To conclude, novel interpretations from Big Data are necessary to understand our emerging philanthropic and digitally sophisticated museum audiences, and something that works across museums and cultural institutions. I am glad that MuseumNext provided that spark this year 2014 to think about data driven museums and social projects. My own talk about the “Light is History” project exhibited to some extent energy-data and its relevance to material culture in our cold Nordics. This, I hope, initiated some discussions about museums, sustainability and acts for Social Change. Just as every small move by a breeding Emperor Penguin causes intelligent coordinated ripple effects among the whole huddle to conserve energy, museums also need to coordinate their moves and approaches when dealing with their audience. Data Collection of museum visitors is not anything new. Many museums and museum associations have been doing this for years. But this data has been mostly either general (visitor numbers, budgets, exhibitions etc.), or isolated and protected, under-analyzed and not been shared across the network of museums that I am familiar with. With limited budgets mainly aimed towards exhibitions and openings and the day to day functioning of their own museums, the acts of sharing and linked Big Data has not been developed as yet. If and when an ecosystem of linked statistical overview will be within reach, it could be extremely useful for any Museum that wishes to enhance their digital and physical outreach. The ultimate goal being to embrace the socially conscious museum visitor ( and the HPV) to participate in the Museum’s activities for social change.

Some Links:

  1. Big data can have a big social impact  The Guardian 6 May 2014
  2. Big Data for Social Innovation: Stanford Social Innovation Review 15 May 2014
  3. Big Data sparks Cultural Changes: Financial Times 25 March 2014
  4. What Big Data cans do for the Cultural Sector: 7 February 2013
  5. Big Data becomes a Mirror:  December 24 2013