A mother and daughter inside a museum exhibition


Every Job is a STEAM Job: How Museum Curators Use Technology

Museums have a reputation of being stuck in the past, with few concessions to today’s technology. A lot of people still think of museums as stuffy galleries where iPhones and cameras aren’t allowed, but that’s not the case at all. Over the past several years, modern museums are welcoming tech in all its forms and changing their exhibitions to engage with visitors.

This technological evolution deeply involves curators and their teams. Along with collecting pieces and determining which elements are the best fit for various exhibitions, museum curators are using data and technology to involve and interact with the public.

Every job is a STEAM job, and here’s how curators use technology to connect with the next generation of museum goers.

Curators Need to Address Modern Audience Behavior

The myth that museums aren’t up to date on modern trends is starting to hurt them. Compared with other modern activities and experiences, fewer people are wandering the hallowed halls filled with artifacts and artistic creations.

Annual attendance at the Baltimore Museum of Art fell almost 13 percent in the past 15 years and the National Endowment for the Arts reports museum attendance is almost 17 percent lower within a similar time period, writes Mary Carole McCauley at The Baltimore Sun.

This drop in attendance is dangerous for more than the local tourism economy. Museums teach creative thinking and logical decision making, while giving people insight into other cultures and their own past. Museums that openly modernize and embrace technology may have an easier time staying relevant.

Museums Need to Connect With Attendees on Digital Platforms

Instead of expecting attendees to conform to museum standards, museums need to connect with visitors on their channels. Catherine Devine, Chief Digital Officer at the American Museum of Natural History, says museums need to mimic the everyday lives of visitors. Attendees are snapping, swiping, and sharing throughout the day, and museums need to meet those behaviors and expectations if they’re going to stay relevant.

To answer this challenge, Devine and her team developed an app that’s triggered by the more than 800 beacons placed throughout the museum. When you walk near a beacon, the app shares information, challenges you to a quiz, or opens virtual games. You don’t have to put your phone away and turn it off to appreciate the museum anymore; in fact, keeping it out is encouraged.  

The American Museum of Natural History is not the only example of museums starting to tap into technology. Dozens of great curators across the country are leading their institutions into the modern era.

A visitor admiring art inside a museum or gallery

Curator Jobs Are Changing to Create Digital Experiences

Far from ruining the museum experience, smartphones and technology are enhancing it, reports  Melanie Abrams at the Financial Times. Visitors usually research the museum online before they go, selecting the exhibitions they’re interested in.

Attendees also stay longer to look at the art and other exhibitions because they have more information about what they’re looking at and can put it into context, often checking the museum app during and after they visit to learn more about what they saw. This means modern museum engagement is something that can last for days instead of hours.  

This is changing the role of curators. In addition to developing exhibitions, they are developing supplemental information to engage visitors.

“People think that curating just means choosing nice things,” Lucy Worsley, English historian, author, and curator of Historic Royal Palaces, says. “But this is only half of it. Our real job as museum curators is to look after artefacts from the past, yet also to be the repository of knowledge about them, to be expert, to have spent 10,000 hours immersed in the subject.”

Curators Are Entering the Digital Media Era

Museums aren’t just competing with each other for attendance and resources. They’re competing with dozens of other experiences and activities that appeal to today’s generations.

“Our competition is Netflix and Candy Crush,” Sree Sreenivasan, the former Chief Digital Officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, says.

To address this competition, curators are expanding their teams to meet the needs of the modern era. The Met has more than 70 employees in its digital media department, with the goal of connecting the museum to the digital world.

“In the face of this upheaval, institutions are creating new roles for technologically minded arts professionals,” Bettina Korek writes at Surface. She profiled recent hires at three iconic museums: New Museum, Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (including Sree Sreenivasan) to show how modern museums are hiring with the digital era in mind. “Museums must adapt, but not at the expense of their missions,” she says.

In the case of the Met, adaptation means working with curators to develop virtual reality tours, including uploading 2,600 free audio messages online, and to create digital experiences within the collection.

Curating With Social Media in Mind

As if digital programming and curation aren’t enough for museum teams to contend with, curators are often challenged to make these exhibitions social, turning their collections into marketing tools.

Museums now organize exhibitions with Instagram in mind, writes Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic. They want people to take pictures of the sculptures, artifacts and artwork, and share them, turning attendees into brand ambassadors and marketers.

A visitor admiring art inside an art museum

There Are Multiple Great Museums Embracing Technology

Preparing exhibitions for digital engagement actually comes quite naturally to some curation teams.

The Toledo Museum of Art is a pioneer in developing interactive exhibitions. They made headlines in late 2016 with the Great Art Escape, an interactive scavenger hunt and virtual story about an animal that leaps from painting to painting wreaking havoc along the way. Families were challenged to follow the clues to find out who was messing with the paintings.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. has VR technology visitors can participate in. In one simulation, viewers take part in a raid on the Unabomber’s cabin as part of an FBI Task Force. Museum attendees can see actual artifacts from the raid, while those who can’t travel to Washington, D.C. can still learn about the history.    

Data Is Used to Improve Museum Experiences

Technology in museums isn’t just forward-facing. Curators and other digital teams are using data analytics and attendee behavior to change their exhibitions and operations.

Alice Daish, a former data scientist at the British Museum, was an advocate for making data-driven decisions for museum operations. She and her colleagues used data to learn how people interacted with the museum and that experience could be improved. By tracking patterns in ticket sales, WiFi usage and audio guide interactions, curators were able to see what visitors were interested in and what they wanted more of.   

These examples of technology use are just the beginning. Last year, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave $1.87 million to help 12 art museums improve their use of technology in order to create more immersive experiences. These projects range from the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh updating their mobile presence to the Detroit Institute of Arts exploring 3D and virtual reality.

Technology is a Tool for Sharing Content

As audiences become more familiar with technology, the use of tactics like VR and smartphone guides will become more common, proving that technology is merely a tool for conveying the valuable information and exhibitions that curators work so hard to develop.  

“The best use of digital is to not make you aware of the technology, but to make you aware of the art,” Jane Alexander, CIO at the Cleveland Museum of Art, says. “How can this be a toolset to get people into the collection? How can people use our collection to bring art into their daily lives?”

People aren’t replacing museum visits with Instagram posts and apps; they’re using these tools to discover art and exhibits they will eventually see.

A great example is Google’s Arts and Culture app launched in early 2018. People could upload selfies and use face recognition to see which famous art pieces they look like. The app instantly topped the charts as people clamored to see whether they would look like the Mona Lisa, or one of the less fortunate looking Hapsburgs.

“The app itself has been available since 2016, and offers an impressive mix of articles and features on artists and art history,” James Vincent reports at The Verge. But it took a few viral posts by celebrities to generate thousands of downloads.  

Visitors in a history museum

The Role of Museums in Society is Changing

While many people lament the decrease of museum attendance, others are challenging those numbers and highlighting new ways to connect with art galleries and history centers.

The National Center for Arts Research says that museums are engaging with audiences in more ways than just driving visitors. They encourage analysts to look at how museums connect with people through “digitally transmitted programs, volunteering, using the museum as a classroom, donating objects, and employing staff,” rather than solely ticket sales.

While the number of traditional visitors may be declining, the number of touch points by way of of virtual interactions and in terms of audience engagement and overall value to local communities is increasing.  

Interestingly, this is also changing the role of many museums. Historically, a museum’s mission was to preserve humanity’s treasures for the next generation, Susanna Ray at Microsoft News writes. However, as they increasingly shift to appeal to visitors, there is less forward-facing academia and more engaging content. This means striking a delicate balance between entertainment and education, and ideally merging the two.

Most curators would argue that the digital era isn’t putting their institutions in jeopardy. On the contrary, it is making it easier for people to connect with their exhibitions and learn about the art, history, and culture that that they’re so proud of. Curators who embrace technology and approach their jobs with a STEAM mentality can work to improve their museums and turn them into valuable learning experiences for local and global communities alike.