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Located in downtown Atlanta, the High Museum of Art is home to a varied collection of artworks including pieces by Claude Monet, Dorothea Lange and Anish Kapoor, to name just three. Over the autumn of 2018, the High, as it is known in the city, was in the final preparations of a complete reinstallation its works. At this time, two of the museum professionals responsible for public engagement stated to talk about how they could make better use of smart technologies to improve the gallery’s experience from a visitor’s point of view.
Julia Forbes and Ivey Rucket – who are the High’s Shannon Landing Amos Head of Museum Interpretation and the Manager of Web and New Media, respectively – wanted to use apps to generate a buzz around their newly installed exhibition spaces. The way they did so seems so simple that it is a wonder that other galleries have not tried the approach out before. They created the equivalent of a dating app for their most famous artworks. How does this digital technology function and what has it achieved?
When Forbes and Rucket sat down to think about using digital technologies to better engage the public with their museum, it is fair to say that they were not initially thinking about dating apps. To begin with, the pair had three central aims that they wanted to fulfil. To begin with, they wanted to show any visitors that were in attendance that the collection at the High was much more diverse than they might otherwise have expected. Secondly, they decided that it would be beneficial for in-person visitors if their app could direct them to see the artworks they most preferred in a way that meant they were able to view more of what they liked. This meant that the app needed to operate as a virtual guide to highlight sections of the gallery. Finally, the aim was to also find a method of collecting data on the individual tastes of visitors. This was so that future exhibition planning could be made more effective.
Having settled upon their three-point plan, Forbes and Rucket needed to find a way of delivering it with virtually no funding whatsoever. They needed, therefore, to design an in-house project that would mean they could keep expenditure to an absolute minimum. At the time, the pair said they would make the project a fun one so that they could keep it on track without being weighed down by the scale of their ambition, an important factor for many an overworked museum professional to take into consideration, of course.
“Our goal was that the app would be used by a larger proportion of the public than our previous handheld tools,” said Forbes. “These had been critical successes but they didn’t generate the numbers of downloads or return visits that we had hoped for.”
As such, the brief also needed to include a much more engaging approach to marketing so that visitors were made aware of the app’s presence from the outset. In the past, mobile technology had been deployed by the High but visitors were sometimes put off using it by the requirement to download it and to log on. If their self-imposed brief wasn’t hard enough already, then Forbes and Rucket also wanted to address both these problems of public engagement for their latest venture.
In order to meet their three goals and to improve on previous versions smart technology the museum had deployed, the team brought together a cross-section of the High’s staff, made up of curators, educational professionals, marketing teams and digital experts. The larger group all fed into the project with their areas of expertise over the course of several months, each offering their own valuable insights. As a result of this process, Forbes and Rucket came to a realisation. They wanted their new app to answer a key question that staff around the museum got from visitors every single day, namely what they should see once they had arrived there. The pair realised that this is the sort of enquiry that every other professional in galleries around the world would recognise – the question of what to look at.
As a result of identifying this understandable, if open-ended, question, the pair looked at ways of answering it. Of course, their wider steering committee was able to tell them from their own experiences in the museum that the question of what to see was usually met with another question, “What sort of art do you like?” Given that nearly all visitors could pin down their preferences exactly, it rendered the first question futile. Forbes and Rucket saw that this was their opportunity. If they developed an app that helped visitors to identify what art they liked – as well as what they did not – then they could make their time at the gallery that much more enjoyable.
With the idea for the app hit upon, the team soon realised that mobile technology that determines personal preferences already exists in an easy-to-operate, interactive form – the dating app. Although there are numerous examples of dating app, by far the simplest follows the Tinder model, that is swiping right for someone, or something, you like and left, if not. One of the High’s curators suggested making a version of Tinder but for works of art instead.
This soon became a reality in the form of Heartmatch which showed photographs of numerous works at the High. Visitors and, indeed, people not even thinking about going to the museum could view images of some of the gallery’s artworks and swipe away to their heart’s content. The team said that they were drawn to the simplicity of the swiping convention. It allowed them to meet point one of their brief by showing a range of art, both famous and less well-known. Secondly, once a visitor had made up their minds about which artworks they preferred, the app could present them with a fully tailored map of the High, so the person in question could head off to experience their preferred art in person.
Crucially, Heartmatch also meant that the gallery could collate data on visitor preferences. As a result, popular works of art would feature more in marketing materials while less popular pieces might be reserved for educational programmes which would allow for a greater public appreciation of the works in question over time. By opting for a progressive web app, the experience of swiping felt like a natural extension of the High’s website without the need for complex coding or setting up user logins.
After some experimentation, the team decided that a hundred works of art should be included on Heartmatch. This meant that they could all be viewed within five minutes but it was still a sizeable enough number to give visitors a real sense of the whole collection. Initially called Artmatch, the app was rebranded as Hearthmatch because its launch coincided with Valentine’s Day in 2019. It also made the app more like a dating one, hinting at its ease of use.
The app was promoted significantly on the High’s website and further promotional signage was added to the top of the stanchions leading to the museum’s primary ticketing area. There was also a social media campaign which helped to boost engagement with the app. Despite its success, the pair did not leave matters there. They completed the Heartmatch experience with a user survey which asked visitors to feedback on their thoughts not just of the app itself but of their wider experience in the gallery having used Heartmatch to navigate their way around. As such, the pair have really demonstrated the potential of dating app software in the museum sector.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.
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