Art By Numbers


Leann Davis Alspaugh laments the intrusion of smartphones into art museums, not least because of the newfangled “digital beacons” that mine them for data about the viewing habits of those who carry them:

These small wireless transmitters, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Guggenheim, for example, can track how fast visitors move through the galleries and which pieces draw the greatest crowds.

The Polish developers of the Estimote digital beacon call their product a “super small computer,” one compatible with all major smart devices and energy efficient. The pastel-colored, irregularly faceted carapace also makes the Estimote uniquely recognizable, a design improbably incorporating the organic and the high tech. The beacons work through a combination of Bluetooth signals and cloud-based data storage. Suddenly made aware of their “innovation deficit,” museums find themselves rushing to hire data analysts and IT departments to crunch numbers and troubleshoot servers.

The pressure to exploit new technology is strong for museums, as one official noted in a recent Wall Street Journal report, to discover not simply “what’s significant art historically but also what’s perhaps on trend.” Big data can be used to point curators toward what people really want to see in exhibitions. “The customer is king” is marketing’s most basic lesson, but in this case only practicable if exhibitions are assembled like products plucked off of a warehouse shelf. Most museum exhibitions are the product of years of planning and negotiation, not to mention navigating logistics, customs, and insurance complications. And let’s not even think about placating private donors or ensuring that artworks are real and have uncontested rights and provenances. To add to these challenges the pursuit and identification of fleeting trends hardly seems a way to enhance the museum experience or to help it fulfill its educative function.

(Photo from the Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University)