Museums are introducing mobile apps to keep visitors thinking about the art even when looking at their phones. But what happens with the data that these apps collect?
“FIND A WORK OF ART that intrigues you. Send us a photo.” This prompt appears on your smartphone screen when you launch the ASK app inside the Brooklyn Museum. Above the text bubbles, there’s a photograph of the museum’s Audience Engagement Team. The image of five smiling young people assures you that human beings are at your service somewhere inside the sprawling 560,000-square-foot Beaux Arts landmark. Four members of the team are women, so chances are that the person responding to your queries is a she. She has an advanced art history degree, but she won’t talk down to you. She’ll never dismiss the most trivial and uninformed questions about the museum collection.
“Ask about art and we’ll answer right now,” goes one ASK slogan. Another says: “Ask us for the scoop.” If you ask the right questions, you might discover that the Audience Engagement Team works in plain sight, in an open office just to the side of the lobby. Visitors can observe digital labor being performed in the flesh. The transparency of the service reveals the art historians on the team to be mechanical turks. For seasoned contemporary museum visitors, it would not be unfounded to interpret this scene as a bit of performance art, a curatorial intervention, or an example of what Boris Groys has described as “staging the flow,” making museum visitors aware that they are inside an event. 1 But ASK ultimately plays out as a social interaction on mobile devices over the museum’s wireless network, with the goal of directing spectators’ gazes back to the art and away from other apps, like Facebook or Instagram, where their posts about their museum experience can divert their attention.
The ASK app was developed over the course of two years. It could be described as a social-media solution to the problem of smartphone distraction. It feels like an intimate form of customer service, in that talking about art tends to be more affecting than, say, activating your credit card. And as in most customer-service experiences today, you’re put on hold while a team member prepares: “Feel free to put the phone down and look at art. We’ll send you a notification when we’ve responded.”
As the texting thread gets going the exchange becomes more conversational. The medium of the handheld phone defines the terms of communication. Personal charm and wit help snippets of information about art go down easy. After a while, the artworks begin to feel like the pretext for a transfer of affective labor. The Audience Engagement Team is there not only to inform but also to shape the way you feel about the museum.
The ASK app project was originally led by Shelley Bernstein, then the Brooklyn Museum’s vice director of digital engagement and technology and currently the deputy director for digital initiatives and chief experience officer at the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. Bernstein might be best known for organizing “Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition” at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008, a show of photographs selected and installed based on an analysis of the online activity of a jury of the masses. For ASK, the leveling gesture is that of offering a direct line to “museum experts.” The Audience Engagement Team member acts as a proxy for the curator or art historian, condensing their knowledge from a “wiki” accessed via computer dashboard; she is, in essence, a high-tech docent.
ASK is the most recent strategy in a long war against elitism waged by former Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman, who stepped down last year after nearly two decades. His reputation as a tireless champion of populism was won through controversial exhibitions, from “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” in 2002 to “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe” in 2014. Lehman has left, but his legacy remains intact. The Brooklyn Museum’s current mission statement says that the museum is “dedicated to the primacy of the visitor experience.”
ABOUT A DECADE AGO, museum administrators who wanted to enhance public engagement began to purposely disrupt their venerable institutions with new technology. The mandate was to develop tools capable of overhauling the museum to accommodate the networked multitudes, from tourists with massive tablets to local teens with their first smartphones.
As the museum came to be understood as an interface, this digital metaphor was stamped across the overall administration of the visitor experience. In many ways, consumer technologies forced museums to view their publics as an empowered constituency. Apple, Samsung, Google, and other technology companies have developed tools that facilitate social interaction and now fundamentally affect institutional decisions in areas as diverse as gallery expansions, curation, fund-raising, and, perhaps most significantly, public engagement.
Implementing these changes, however, has proved to be prohibitively expensive. Many museums in need of funds for pilot digital initiatives have turned to the largesse of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has emerged as the principal sponsor for ambitious museum-technology projects in the United States, Western Europe, and-more recently-Asia. Bloomberg Philanthropies is a foundation started by billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. One of its branches, Bloomberg Connects (previously known as the Digital Engagement Initiative), has provided $96 million to arts organizations since 1999. According to a mission statement on the organization’s website, these grants are earmarked for digital technologies “designed to transform the visitor experience, by encouraging interaction and exploration of cultural institutions on and offsite.” Bloomberg Connects initially funded audio guides, then moved to mobile apps as these took on many of the same functions and more. A conspicuous “Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies” logo appears on the mobile apps for many of New York’s largest cultural institutions.
The philanthropic mandate for Bloomberg Connects seems like a natural outgrowth from Bloomberg LP, the software company that has made billions by interpreting financial market data. Michael Bloomberg is known to espouse (and tweet) the business truism: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” It’s only logical that cultural institutions priming themselves for the digital revolution have turned to Bloomberg as a partner in harnessing visitor data for analysis. Museums typically promote digital strategies as augmentations of existing activities in public engagement and education, while quantitative reports parsing visitor behavior are prepared behind the scenes. Nonprofits have taken up business practices that treat the public impact of an exhibition or program as a measurable quantity justifying investment. Museums that receive technology grants eventually generate audience statistics that demonstrate the required success to merit more grants. When early adopters have a significant edge in grant applications, thoughtful and deliberate consideration of digital interventions becomes a handicap.
In 2016, the upgrade to smart museums has left the realm of pure speculation. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Pen, the integration of digital strategies into the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s expansion, and the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK app were all realized after these institutions received a share of the $17 million in Bloomberg Connects grants awarded in 2014. 2
During Shelley Bernstein’s tenure, the Brooklyn Museum won a Bloomberg grant for a plan to install wireless digital sensors throughout the galleries. There, as at other museums that now track visitor locations, a computerized sensory environment is created within an infrastructure that has long been dedicated to staging encounters between the human senses and art. In short, the museum has radically updated its approach to treating the presentation of art as a logistical task.
The iBeacon is a technology that uses Bluetooth proximity sensing to determine a device’s location and transmit it to an operating system. Beacons installed around the Brooklyn Museum tell members of the ASK team where users are in the galleries when they send queries, so they know which artworks are nearby.
Most museum apps have been developed in the mold of audio guides, enhanced with interactive multimedia. They come preloaded with gallery maps and information on current exhibitions and events. This is the case with the Guggenheim Museum, which, like the Brooklyn Museum, installed more than a hundred iBeacons throughout the building. Both institutions purchased their beacons from Estimote, a company that encases the transmitters in colorful faceted shells. 3 The Guggenheim’s app has a location feature called “Guggenheim Near Me,” which, when selected, fills the user’s screen with thumbnail images of nearby artworks that link to related content. ASK, however, is a chat app with no information other than its welcome photo and text prompts, making it unique among museum apps.
Almost every smartphone, tablet, and laptop in use today is Bluetooth-compatible. If Bluetooth, which wirelessly connects such devices through low-energy radio waves, resembles a nervous system, then an app functions as a central node. To determine location, a beacon transmits a unique identifier to devices in the area, a tracking signal that remains unintelligible without an app. The beacon can find a device’s location only in the present, but over time a user’s movements and affinities can be mapped and analyzed. By comparison, a wi-fi network is a more comprehensive means of gathering data directly from a user’s device. wi-fi routers listen to broadcast packets from users’ devices, thus gaining access to browsing histories and other online activities. Bluetooth is less invasive because users opt in by downloading an app, thereby choosing to give the sensor network access to their locations and nothing more. 4
Work on ASK started in 2014. The iOS version of the app was released in spring 2015, after a year of pilot testing, and a version for Android followed a year after that. When ASK was first launched, the beacons functioned erratically, confounded as they were by radio waves emitted by devices and refracted by bodies, artworks, and walls. Their precision was undermined by a noisy world of objects. The automated prompt-“Find a work of art that intrigues you. Send us a photo”-relieved the dysfunctional beacons from the task of micro-location. Photos can always be relied on as indices.
We went to the Brooklyn Museum to test ASK on a Sunday afternoon in May. Visitor attendance was modest that day, yet the museum lobby was congested with a large topiary structure that would enclose a private wedding ceremony later that evening. Among the mass of wedding service workers, the museum staff could be identified by dark T-shirts promoting ASK. Bold wall graphics in the ticketing area advertised the app further: ask us anything. The ads for ASK dominated sight lines in the lobby, ensuring that the idea of it would linger with museum visitors regardless of whether they downloaded the app.
The graphic barrage seemed to compensate for the lack of interest that initially greeted ASK. In the summer of 2015, the museum had tried to invite engagement by experimenting with the placement of the Audience Engagement Team, positioning them under a glass pavilion by the entrance so visitors would pass them on their way to the ticketing desk. After two weeks the team was moved to a room next to the lobby, and then to kiosks in the lobby. To avoid functional questions from visitors (e.g., “Where is the bathroom?”), the team was later dispersed throughout the galleries. This increased interpersonal interactions, while app usage remained flat. Finally, the team moved to a first-floor open office, along with additional staff members, referred to as “information hosts,” who tell visitors about the app, provide assistance with downloading it, and hand out ASK promotional material.
We offer this list of ASK developments to highlight the museum’s dedication to a social experiment that might otherwise have been carried out as a commissioned artist project, under the banner of relational aesthetics or social practice. A simpler version of it would just send members of the Audience Engagement Team roaming through the museum wearing buttons reading, ask me about the art! Sometimes digital mediation creates more problems than solutions; in the Brooklyn Museum’s case, it seems to have presented a barrier to everything but grant money from Bloomberg. Technology grants have incentivized museum administrators to stage social laboratories with their public, driving toward the vague horizon of a more perfect, less intimidating visitor experience. At a launch event for ASK’s Android version in April, Bernstein said that someone asked her how the app had evolved. “The app hasn’t changed in the year that it’s been on the floor,” she replied. “The institution has changed around it.” 5
BLOOMBERG CONNECTS has also contributed generously to Tate Modern’s digital strategy since the London museum first opened in 2000. In 2013 Bloomberg helped Tate acquire seventy-five interactive screens to create a massive digital media apparatus that dominates the main stairwell. Prompts on the screens include: “How can art change society?” “What moved you today?” “Joseph Beuys said ‘Everyone is an artist.’ What do you think?”
Tate recently expanded to the Switch House, where technological integration became a significant part of Herzog & de Meuron’s structural design. In addition to installing location-aware technology to track users of its app, Tate has created spaces that offer sensory and interactive experiences, such as having visitor movements trigger the launch of videos about works on view. Visitors’ movements are observed by a “customer experience team,” in order to determine how the exhibition might be modified for customers by placing “less emphasis on audio and more on visuals” or by including more text, as Susan Doyon, Tate’s head of content (Bloomberg & Special Projects), explains in a press release. 6
The array of digital strategies at museums today accelerates a decades-old paradigm shift, as the museum changes from being about something to being for somebody. The methods museums use to engage their audiences now stand in stark contrast to those of the past. Most nineteenth-century institutions addressed only a patrician audience. The earliest public art collections functioned as enclosures directing foot traffic through galleries, toward the inspection of ordered objects. The museum was understood to perform a civilizing function, fundamentally improving those who took time with objects selected by purveyors of the world’s most refined artistic accomplishments. The unmasking of these imperialistic and paternal tenets has now opened museums to a broader, more egalitarian range of cultural objects and activities.
Today, museums are exemplars of the experience economy. In 1999, a year after business consultants B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore popularized the term in an article titled “Welcome to the Experience Economy,” museum scholar Stephen Weil wrote about the emergence of “a more entrepreneurial institution.” He defined the change as a shift from a “selling” to a “marketing” mode. In the selling mode, museum efforts were concentrated on convincing the public to “buy” their traditional offerings. In the marketing mode, museums start by attempting to determine the public’s needs and interests. Policies and missions are then shaped to meet the public’s desires, or rather, what museum administrators understand those desires to be. 7 As a result, museums can end up pandering to preexisting tastes in a circular fashion.
Given this recent history, you don’t have to be a visionary to imagine what end beacons might serve in the museum. Sree Sreenivasan, former chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: “If someone loves a painting they’re looking at, they could get an instant coupon for the catalogue, or a meal being sold at the cafeteria that’s based on it.” 8 This might sound incredibly banal, grotesque, or both. But it’s what currently passes as digital engagement doxa. Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums, said that “proximity marketing,” in which retailers use mobile data to deliver direct and tailored advertising, hasn’t made it into the museum yet. “But I think it’s only a matter of time,” she added. 9
For the digital strategist, the inherent value of the collection is leveraged to network the gift shop to all corners of the museum. This might be nothing more than pushy merchandising, but the great allure of beacons is their potential ability to precisely track bodies and clicks. Like many advanced tech platforms, the museum may soon regard its content primarily as a means to mine shopping habits. Visitor data compiled with ASK also affects the placement of art and the content of wall texts, matters that were previously the purview of the curatorial staff. “The data collected has helped inform some of the decisions our curators have made in our newly installed galleries and will assist in the way we present work in the future,” Anne Pasternak, who was appointed director of the Brooklyn Museum last year, said in a press release.
The museum is being refashioned to be as unintimidating as social media and the corporate internet, which have become theaters of radical egalitarianism, simulations of the commons. Yet for some viewers, solitude and wonder remain gifts garnered with time spent at the museum. We cite this cobwebbed notion as a remnant of expectations shaped by the nineteenth-century museum, which favored solidity and permanence over a more nimble, adaptive outlook. Now that the museum is becoming a flexible medium, digital technologies have the opportunity to shape a more democratic institution. But this promise will only flourish if we understand that the tools we adopt come bundled as aesthetic and ideological expressions in their own right.
João Enxuto and Erica Love are artists based in New York.