The Malta Independent 30 September 2022, Friday
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Questioning the museum experience in the 21st century

Sunday, 7 August 2022, 10:02 Last update: about 3 months ago

Dylan Seychell

Think about the last time you had a great experience. Are you able to pinpoint what made it special? Today, we live in the era of "The Experience Economy", where the experience itself is the most critical consumer commodity.

This article explores the notion of designing experiences, particularly in museums in the 21st century. We will shed light on today's technological capabilities that would allow museum professionals to understand the current visitor journey's touch-points and what can be improved. Architecting better experiences starts with accessing visitor behaviour information that will enable professionals to know how to address the visitors' wants and needs. But how exactly can one obtain access to such information?

The movie Night at the Museum immersed us into the idea of exhibits and artefacts in a museum having a life of their own, observing us during the day but delving into a hive of activity at night. Ben Stiller starred as Larry, the night security guard who stepped into this fictitious situation where exhibits came to life at night. In considerable detail, the museum exhibits fictitiously shared their insights about how visitors interacted with them during the day.

Unfortunately, while we may get one-off opportunities to spend nights at museums, it is improbable that we can ever experience the same magic as Larry. However, this does not mean we do not have an opportunity to get similar insights about what goes on in a museum environment during visiting hours.

Instead of the night-time magic, we experience in movies, the Museum Analytics (MAtics) project uses the latest Artificial Intelligence techniques in computer vision and data science to provide insights into how audiences interact with various artefacts in a museum space.

To explain how this is all possible, let us continue with a thought exercise. First, think about your favourite masterpiece at a museum. Imagine you are in its place, seeing visitors coming face to face and staring at you. Then start noticing the reactions and emotions of the different visitors.

The emotions could be those of surprise, awe or even pure delight. However, depending on the artefact, the artefact can instil less positive emotions such as sadness, fear or contemplation.

These emotions are an intrinsic personal experience of the visitor, and how they relate to the masterpiece or experience depends on the individual identity traits. Emotions are only a portion of what goes into a visit. Our focus and attention roam the exhibits as we make our way through the museum, each with our agenda.

In the absolute majority of cases, experiences end there. Nobody will know how we reacted when we saw Michelangelo's David for the first time in real life. Nobody will know that we visited the Louvre and rushed through the first corridors only to be one of the first visitors in front of Da Vinci's Monalisa. Was it about spending some time in front of the authentic masterpiece in awe for a few selfies before then casually strolling the rest of the seemingly endless museum? Nobody will know that Mondrian's compositions competed with your Facebook notifications when you visited the MoMa. Nobody will know the reflective mood Caravaggio's Beheading of Saint John put us in when we visited Saint John's Co-Cathedral.

How often are these touch-points noted, recorded or explored by who designs or manages the museum, exhibition or experience? These are all lost opportunities for curators and other stakeholders that hinder the possibility of improving the experience.

Museums and exhibitions empower us to value humanity's past, recognise our identity and educate us on replicating good and avoiding situations that brought a loss of life and misery. For these reasons, SeyTravel embarked on the MAtics project to shed more light on the visitor experience using the latest technology. With such analytical insights into how visitors interact with a physical space, a rich feedback loop will be in place that can empower decision-makers to make more informed decisions.

When the right technology is provided to museum professionals, there will not be a need to wait every night for some magic that blows life into our exhibits to tell us what visitors experienced. Instead, museums will be able to know what is meaningful to their visitors when they need to while respecting everyone's privacy. Such insights will empower museums to improve their business models, making them more sustainable while justifying applications for further funding.

This article is based on the MAtics (Museum Analytics) research project financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology through the Fusion: R&I Research Excellence Programme. For more information refer to https://www.seytravel.com/matics


 Dr Dylan Seychell is the founder of SeyTravel Ltd and an academic in the department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Malta


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