Insight and the Museum Renaissance

Thank you to Black Radley for this guest blog about how Big Data might help museums and a project, ‘Insight’, with an invitation for museums to take part in the trial. See – Insight Prospectus Nov 14

Museums have come a long way since the ‘Museum Age’ of the late 19th century. The rapid and intense societal and economic shifts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have necessitated a step change across the sector, ushering in an era of unprecedented challenge and opportunity.

As we approach 2015, the word that has become intrinsically linked with cultural organisations is ‘resilience’. The state of being resilient has become tantamount to both survival and success; but what does it mean to be ‘resilient’, and how are museums making the paradigm shift from survival to success?

The emerging manifesto leads us to concepts of clarity, flexibility, freedom, enterprise and of course sustainability; all useful nouns which collectively form the component parts, and key success criteria, of resilience. Yet let’s not overlook the thread that runs through all these themes, the elephant in the room, which is of course money. The generation and effective use of revenue is the overarching factor that determines resilience, and allows our beloved cultural institutions to deliver their respective missions.

We all know this is nothing new; even our Victorian ancestors were familiar with the importance of raising funds. The key difference is that these days funds are in short supply – but is that the reality?

The celebrated Canadian entrepreneur Brian Tracy has stated that “We are living today in the greatest age in all of human history. There have never been more opportunities for wealth creation [and] with the explosion in information, technology and competition, the number of possible things that you could do to be successful is expanding every year.”

The museums making the shift from survival to success are the ones who will have noticed the three key words in Tracy’s statement: information, technology, and competition – three more nouns we should add to the definition of resilience. These museums have recognised that whilst some forms of income may be in decline, opportunities for revenue generation are opening up elsewhere; the key to tapping in to them is to find out where the trends are shifting (information), how to identify this (technology) and how to utilise assets to leverage this insight (competition).

This may sound like the familiar practice of ‘Market Research’, yet market research, like Museums, is undergoing a renaissance of its own. New technologies are opening the doors to new arenas of information which are revolutionising how organisations do business. Yes, I’m talking about Big Data, which is a term used to describe the increasing growth and availability of information – we are now able to investigate lines of enquiry previously unheard of in traditional market research, allowing analysts to gain entirely new insights in to factors that have an impact on society and business.

Now, with various emerging initiatives, the cultural sector is due to experience the benefits of Big Data for itself.

One such project, aptly named ‘Insight’, is being developed by leading cultural consultancy Black Radley, in partnership with researchers at Bath Spa University’s Centre for Creative Computing and software developers at Ryan O’Neill Partnership. Museums and other cultural organisations are being invited to become involved.

Pete Collins, Insight Project Manager at Black Radley explains, “We are entering a new age in the evolution of Museums. This means new ways of thinking, of adapting, and responding, but to do this we have to understand what to think, how to adapt, and how to best respond. The emergence of Big Data provides us with the opportunity to deepen our awareness of the factors that influence Museum performance. This will allow Museums to plan more effectively, gain a deeper understanding of their visitors, and potentially increase revenue. Ultimately this will enable the sector to continue to preserve and share the astounding heritage of civilisation. We are asking Museums to help us test our technology by taking part in the Insight trial, which aims to bring real benefits to their understanding of how to generate commercial income.”

Andrew Hugill, Director of the Centre for Creative Computing at Bath Spa University commented: “Computing is increasingly striving to serve better the needs of the arts and humanities. One way is through the use of predictive analysis techniques applied to Big Data. We are working closely with Black Radley and colleagues from Heritage to understand the user requirements and to unlock new insights into museum performance.”

Insight is supported by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts – Nesta, Arts & Humanities Research Council and public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. Museums, art galleries, historic sites and houses, and other cultural attractions who are interested in taking part in the Insight trial and would like further information can contact project manager Pete Collins at insight@blackradley.com.

In conclusion, it’s clear that here in the 21st Century our understanding of the world is changing and society is adapting accordingly; Museums too are changing and adapting, sharing in this renaissance and evolution. Whilst they are entering a brave new world in terms of operation and approach, it’s reassuring to note that their goal is not so very different from that of their ancestors and that the passion to achieve this goal is still as strong both within and outside the sector. Museums continue to advance our understanding of the world around us, indeed our understanding of ourselves, by reflecting the world back to us in ways that are creative, inspiring, provoking and innovative. What new methods will Museums embrace to enable them to reflect the world back to a 21st Century audience? Let’s find out and let’s look forward to ushering in a ‘Museum Age’ for modern times.

For more information please contact Peter Collins, Enterprise and Culture Executive, on peter_collins@blackradley.com or 07896799748.

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