What does data have to do with museums?

On Friday 5th June I attended a free conference at the British Museum called ‘What does data have to do with me?’ As someone who deals with data about collections daily in my work, and has a reasonable grasp of the importance of visitor data from my previous roles and Museum Studies course, I still consider myself something of a novice in this field. To see the potential of what data, in the right hands, can do was a real eye-opener. The many speakers, from diverse organisations such as the BBC, the Guardian, the Audience Agency, Nesta and the Arts Council, spoke on different subjects and projects, but some common themes emerged again and again:


Unicorn was the word of the day. Many of the speakers mentioned the need for skilled people in order to effectively collect, manage, analyse and meaningfully use data, but Nesta’s Juan Mateos Garcia emphasised that where all these skills are found in one miraculous person, they are as rare as a unicorn. Rather than chasing this mythic beast, the answer is to employ the varied skills of a diverse and capable team. It is also important to engage and upskill other staff to imbed the necessary knowledge across the organisation.

Standardisation is the key

The conference raised the importance of calling the same things the sames things, and doing this not just across an organisation, but nationally across the sector and beyond, to ensure that the data being collected can be used meaningfully in the widest possible context. One of the challenges raised time and time again was the inconsistency of terminology across departments, organisations, art forms. By working together on a standardised vocabulary, the potential for the meaningful use of data increases.


Museums are keen to compare themselves to other organisations and see how they measure up. This may be with other museums or with other leisure, cultural or learning activities which potential visitors are partaking in. The standardisation of data collection allows them to do this. It also allows organisations to work together in order to gain a wider perspective across the cultural landscape, both regionally and nationally. As a couple of the speakers pointed out in the panel discussions, museums are not really in competition with each other, they are in competition with the myriad of other leisure opportunities which people have access to, so it makes sense to share and use these benchmarking tools more widely.


The need to share skills and resources within the museum sector is crucial. This is especially true when it comes to developing and using new tools and ways of working with data, and again we need to look to share more widely then just the sector itself.

Commercially driven organisations are further ahead than museums in using data because it is necessary to their market success. Organisations across all sectors are keen to unlock the potential of using data but they have been working in silos to find solutions. It will be much more productive for organisations which are not competition or profit driven to share solutions and tools, and thankfully there is a move towards this:

The tools are there

There is increasingaccess to existing, free, open-source tools which museums without the benefit of a resident unicorn can use to start benefiting from better data analysis. Basic examples of this are the analytics tools which are built into WordPress and Twitter, and which are available to all users and easy to understand. There are also free online courses available through coursera which can help people to learn more for themselves.

Shyam Oberoi, speaking in a video link from Dallas Museum of Art, described how the museum built their own software to help them track participation and target activities to visitors. Once the software was established, it was user-friendly so in-house DMA staff could use it to add new activities and analyse how successful they were. This CMS is now being shared with other museums for free as an open-source plug-in. This kind of sharing means museums can help each other to build and improve the tools they have available to them.

It’s a slow process

Layla Barron from Watershed Bristol emphasised that this is a slow, ongoing process. There is a need to disseminate work, get feedback and re-evaluate. This was echoed by other speakers including Charlotte Richards from News UK who spoke of a million small steps and a few giant leaps of faith to get to the end goal. Accepting this way of working can be a challenge when museums have limited staff time and may be working to the schedule of funders or stakeholders who want to see results within a given time-period.

An Anthropology of Hashtags

There was a lot of talk of relational connectivity – how your data relates to that of other museums, and how your information mixes into a bigger pool of data that people search online. Jon Pratty of the Arts Council spoke about the need for an anthropology of hashtags, to research how people connect data, stories and content. Cimeon Ellerton of the Audience Agency also referred to the need for ethnographic study of how people use data when making decisions, and how audiences behave online. Research into online behaviour around stories, information, and content and how they are shared between people needs to be done in order to effectively grasp the potential of connecting data. Again this is a field where other organisations, such as the news organisations represented at the conference, are way ahead of museums – they recognise the need to know where a news story starts, who is sharing it and how popular it is within which circles.

Digital Public Space 

One of the big questions raised at the conference was who will take the responsibility for the infrastructure of all this shared data? Richard Leeming from the BBC’s Research and Education Space project spoke about the Digital Public Space as a secure public space with searchable access to linked open data for all. The question is how will this space be constituted and who will take responsibility for it. In managing and safeguarding resources, and facilitating public access to them, there are clear parallels to the role of museums in society. It would be good to think museums could take a lead role in the Digital Public Space, but in many cases they are not up to speed with the advances in the digital sphere. This could be a missed opportunity for museums to extend their role to include oversight of society’s data assets.


Chris Austin gave examples of how engagement levels with the Guardian’s app rocket when personalisation is used to target content to individual interests. The ensuing panel discussion brought up some issues of how this could be used in museums, and whether such targeted content minimises the opportunity of discovery, or finding something new and unexpected, which is surely one of the pleasures of museum-going. Austin also mentioned that editors can be uncomfortable with an algorithm, rather than their editorial expertise, choosing the content which is featured most prominently. There is a clear parallel here with curators choosing the content for exhibitions, but hasn’t the sector been saying for a long time that we need to let visitors choose their path and be less dictatorial about the way knowledge is imparted through displays? I think this is an area which will be the source of much debate in the future.

Data can’t do everything.

Chris Austin emphasised the fact that the use of data is not an easy answer to everything.  It has to be used as a tool in combination with logic and expertise in order to be effective. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, there needs to be some balance between relying on data and relying on expertise, or rather using expertise to maximise the effective use of data. Data is not a panacea. We need to be working with clearly defined goals, and clearly defined questions which we want to use data to answer.