The Nelson-Atkins Museum Gears Up For Big Data To Shape Visitor Experiences

Feb 5, 2015

Julián Zugazagoitia is the director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

Big Data – it’s a catch phrase these days. But museums in cities across the country, from New York to Dallas to Cleveland, are taking cues from corporations and shopping malls, and collecting data to track visitor behavior. It’s starting to shape what’s on view.

In December, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art hired Doug Allen as its first chief information officer, to help analyze data and map a technology strategy.

"Technology will allow us to enrich the experience of a visit, and also allow for a pre-visit," says director and CEO Julián Zugazagoitia.

Zugazagoitia and I walked through the galleries of the Nelson-Atkins's Bloch Building for a conversation about the relationship between technology and the visitor experience. Here are some highlights: 

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal about Big Data and museums reported that the Nelson-Atkins was creating a new position of CIO. I'm interested in how the museum is exploring technology.

"As our strategic plan was being developed, we had two roundtables with CIOs, chief information officers, of different museums, and then another roundtable with information officers in Kansas City, from different entities like advertising agencies, engineering, just to understand what a CIO does, in the commercial world, in the non-profit world, and how we can use that position in museums. 

Many museums have gone ahead and hired that (CIO) and so we are just in the catching up, in many ways. And technology is one of those investments that we need to take to the next level. Because I think it can fulfill much better our mission in rendering our art, our collections, our scholarship accessible any time of the day anywhere in the world. And it's the right time to learn from the mistakes of many other museums."

The article also mentioned that some museums are installing electronic devices to track how visitors are spending their time. Is that something that the Nelson is looking into? 

"Let's go into the galleries right now. And nothing will be tracking except our security cameras know that this door is being opened ... we've already been tracking certain things. But definitely today, there's so much that museums can learn about visitation. And one of the things we're trying to do is have a better understanding of how the public interacts with the art and how to deliver them, thanks to those learnings, a better experience for every visitor.

But if we look very closely at patterns of visitation, where people are looking, we might uncover works of art that for us are very important, that we love very much, we think they are essential, but people are bypassing them. So maybe it's a question of lighting better that corner. Today technology allows for those kind of things, tracking.

I had the privilege of visiting the Nelson with a person who helps retail stores do their design, and it's also that kind of looking and taking from other fields. There are lessons that we can learn as a museum. For us, each of these pieces of art is so important that we can't imagine anyone overlooking them — that's why we have them, these are our treasures. By having people that look at the space in a different way, we start also learning things and adjusting sometimes the galleries (as a result) of that kind of feedback."

Is it important for you to know how long visitors are spending in front of the art, or in certain galleries? 

"Well, we do have ... people looking at visitors. We tag people. One of our staff persons or volunteers who are helping us do the surveys will look at someone, (for example) a person with a yellow purse, and see how long that person takes. And then we do that over the course of the exhibition, and that gives us a number that we call the 'sweep rate' — how long someone stayed in the gallery. 

Looking at those numbers and having people stay longer, slowing down our visitation, are all strategies we're looking into so that people get more out of a visit. But there's no right or wrong way to visit a gallery either. Overall, getting a lot of information gives us averages that really indicate things."

As more museums are incorporating touch screens or videos — the Nelson has done this in galleries and with the exhibits — do you see that as becoming part of each gallery space?

"Yes and no. You know, I'm very cautious about technology for technology's sake, and anything that distracts you from the real work of art. On the other side, what is the best way to give you information?

Here, for instance, in a small video that I think the loop is less than 5 minutes — 3 minutes 31 seconds, actually. So, here we're providing you, as you enter and look at the (Luis) Tomasello installation on this wall, elements that can explain a little bit of the piece, a little time lapse of how we installed it, all of the questions that may arise. And this station has even one of the modules, that as you can see is quite beaten up, which means that people are really touching it, looking at it, and that way no one has damaged our piece and just because you satisfy some of the curiosity, you answer some of the questions.

This is one of the places in which, I think, a video or technology works well. I think that as we go further into the future, since most of us have handhelds that now have all this technology, I would rather everyone have a handheld device — whether we lend it or whether it's yours and you bring it to the Nelson — and that way we have more space for art."

As you look ahead, with hiring the new CIO and goals for the museum, what is the biggest goal for you when it comes to visitors? Is it engagement, is it returning, is it spending more time? 

"Definitely it is a return visitor that discovers something he or she had not experienced before and has a transcendental experience or a joyful day at the Nelson and goes out with a smile and tells two or three of his or her friends: 'You have to see this,' or 'I went to the Nelson and had such a great time,' or 'You cannot miss this show,' or 'There's one piece of art that no one gets to see and it's on the second floor, and it's my favorite.' So that the museum becomes each individual's museum. 

To a certain degree, today, we get to see some of those reactions thanks to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. And they fill me with joy when you see that. Now, each generation has a way of communicating that. Some of us say that over a dinner. But the fact that people feel and have an experience — because we're free, they can come in for five minutes or five hours, in and out, or spend the day here — that it is their museum, that it is a place, a safe place that encourages self-discovery, a place that encourages thinking about the world. 

So those would be good — good things to achieve (laughs)."

This interview has been edited and condensed.