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Museums must harness their data estates in order to survive

In her latest article for MuseumNext, Microsoft Strategy Leader for Libraries and Museums, Catherine Devine, examines the opportunities and challenges presented by big data today. She explains why museums must harness the insights available to them or risk losing relevance with the modern audience.

There are a phenomenal number of data sources for museums to collect, collate and interpret today. Whether it’s monitoring web activity, tracking smart sensors in museum buildings or logging purchases made in the gift shop, it is possible to build a clearer picture of how museums interact with visitors (both physical and digital) than ever before.

This is completely at odds with the way museums used to gather information about their estates and their audiences in decades gone by. In the past, audience insights typically consisted of little more than postcode information collected as a result of ticket sales.

Of course, it’s not necessarily the way that data is collected but the volume, the quality and the interpretation of that information that matters most. Big data in and of itself doesn’t benefit museums. But having mechanisms in place to analyse and gain insights really does.

Developing the tools to make that possible for professionals within institutions is something that we have a clear focus on at Microsoft – and it will only continue to grow in importance as digital technologies mature and the number of data sources continues to increase.

Organising data to make it meaningful

The first challenge that any organisation faces, be it a museum or amusement park, is to gather data effectively into one place: what we call a data lake. Then it needs to be secured (because data protection is key) and made accessible so that insights can be extracted using the resources that are available.

If we take visitor data as our primary example: in the simplest terms, information gathered from online and physical sources helps institutions to understand their audiences better. With this fundamental information in hand it is possible to optimise how that audience is marketed to, engaged with and “converted” – be that through an in-person visit, website session, product purchase or donation.

Alternatively, audience data can serve to highlight demographics that aren’t being engaged with and it may be that a museum looks to change the way they look to attract visitors. Indeed, insights have the capacity to influence everything from the upcoming exhibition programme to the museum’s weekly opening hours.

It’s really not dissimilar to what we are seeing going on in the retail space where things have evolved rapidly over the past decade or so. In years gone by, buying teams dictated what went out on the shop floor based on hunches, educated guesses and anecdotal evidence; today retail is highly dependent on measuring data and developing ranges based on real market analysis. Those changes have helped to reduce wasted inventory and money spent on poorly directed marketing efforts.

Using big data in practice

Once a museum has data collected and presented effectively, the next question is one of determining how to act on those insights.

While it can be tempting to hold firm to ideas about who visits a museum, when they visit and why, museums have a responsibility and a requirement to move away from what they think they know and instead take the temperature of the changing social landscape in front of them.

There is undoubtedly a greater appetite in the museum sector than ever before to listen to and communicate with audiences to ensure that they represent their communities. In that endeavour, effective data collection and data insights can be hugely beneficial.

Innovation has moved at such a pace that audience demands have changed dramatically over the last decade. And thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic those behaviours and requirements have certainly continued to evolve over the last two years. Museums must use the insights at their disposal to adapt their programming, marketing activities, platforms, pricing, employment, energy usage – just about every aspect of their institutions.

Ultimately, the evolution of a data-based approach enables every aspect of an organisation to run more efficiently if – and it’s a big if – the resource is there to analyse the data being generated.

Machine learning and AI

The advent of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will become a critical feature in ensuring that the manual analysis and manipulation of data can be kept to a minimum in this process. In fact, AI is already embedded in many aspects of museum (and broader business practice) to ensure that meaningful insights are available at the fingertips of marketing, sales, facilities and senior management teams.

Using AI tools means that the data with the most statistical significance now rises to the top and prompts the user; rather than the user having to ask questions of the data as it emerges.

Nevertheless, I hold to the argument that there is a need for a greater number of data specialists in the museum sector. As advanced and fast-improving as AI tools are in generating insights, I have long contended that museums must value those with technical and analytical expertise more.

In many industries and sectors there are data analysts and data scientists who are highly valued for their abilities in collecting, managing and interpreting data. But it has perhaps taken a little time for museums to understand the value of these roles and these skills, which is why haven’t seen them in museum roles all that often.

It’s been a message that I’ve been sharing for several years now that museums need to look to diversify intellectually . . . and, of course, diversify more generally.

To my mind, museums need to have as many people who are technologically literate and analytical as they have people who are artistically inclined. Museums have always and will always need talented creatives but, in order to evolve and stay relevant in the future, I believe they also need analytical minds that can help them to keep their finger on the pulse of changing societal demands.

Just as museums should be striving to promote diversity of age, race and gender, I think that intellectual diversity is another key component that should be addressed. Being open to different approaches and challenging preconceptions can be a healthy way for museums to look at how they have worked historically and identify ways to improve and adapt for the future. After all, it’s very difficult to innovate in an echo chamber.

Appreciating the challenge that lies ahead

Although museums are different from other sectors in a lot of ways, they can’t afford to believe that they are exempt from market challenges. Ultimately, if they don’t adapt and progress, I think some will die out just as organisations in other sectors do when they stop being relevant and are unable to keep up with the times.

Museums have to get people young. If they can’t appeal to the next generations coming through now then they will most probably never capture their attention. So, the challenge for institutions is to use the information at their disposal to better understand the right strategies to retain relevancy.

Of course, as a Microsoft employee I would say that data services are essential to museums because it’s cloud-based data services that we sell. Yet, what museums need to recognise is that as every industry harnesses the potential in their data estates and become more attuned to their digital insights, consumer expectations change with them.

Museums can have these same insights at their disposal and they can be used to continually improve their offering.

Connect with Catherine Devine on LinkedIn.

About the author – Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine is the recently appointed global Business Strategy Leader-Libraries and Museums at Microsoft. She was formerly Chief Digital Officer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization in the world to achieve more.

With Microsoft’s focus on understanding and solving the specific needs of Museums,  Catherine is leading this effort at Microsoft.

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