Boston’s MFA: We’re Not Stalking Our Visitors

Friday’s Wall Street Journal featured this eye-popping piece by Ellen Gamerman on museums and Big Data.

When the Art Is Watching You

Museums are mining detailed information from visitors, raising questions about the use of Big Data in the arts


One morning last week, a team of experts at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum searched for hidden spots in the rotunda to conceal tiny electronic transmitters. The devices will enable the museum to send messages about artworks to visitors via their smartphones while at the same time collect details about the comings and goings of those guests.

At today’s museums, all eyes aren’t just on the art. They’re on the visitors.

Across the country, museums are mining increasingly detailed layers of information about their guests, employing some of the same strategies that companies like Macy’s, Netflix and Wal-Mart have used in recent years to boost sales by tracking customer behavior. Museums are using the visitor data to inform decisions on everything from exhibit design to donor outreach to gift-shop marketing strategies.

In Massachusetts, the Norman Rockwell Museum “is crunching numbers for a more conventional purpose: retail. The museum began working with a data analytics company last year to increase gift-shop sales, fine-tuning its email blasts based on customers’ past purchases or the buying patterns of first-time shoppers.”

And it worked.

“This year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday gift-shop sales were up 16% to 20% over last year, said Margit Hotchkiss, deputy director of audience and business development.”

But Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts isn’t entirely sold on the sales stalking.

“We’re trying to balance that creepiness factor,” said Edward Gargiulo, director of membership and database marketing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The museum generally avoids getting into all the detail it has about its guests when communicating with them, he said. For instance, when the MFA sends digital surveys to guests after they visit, it deliberately omits the date of that visit in case that level of specificity would unnerve the email’s recipient.

Good for the MFA. The museum collects data, but doesn’t rub it in our face.

Thank goodness for small favors, eh?  Then again, we’re still surprised the MFA’s Goya exhibit isn’t sponsored by Goya beans.

Goya figure.

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1 Response to Boston’s MFA: We’re Not Stalking Our Visitors

  1. xiaojuntian says:

    Reblogged this on Big Data, Big World and commented:
    The picture really scared me, that’s why someone says big data is bad. Imagine you live in a world with 24 hours monitoring.

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