Transatlantic Perspectives on the Use of Data Science in Museums and Heritage

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: History


Current developments in data science have been employed across the commercial world but they also offer a wealth of possibilities for improving visitor experience in cultural institutions, with potential benefits on a significant scale. Indeed, in 2016-17, 52% of British people visited a museum and 74% visited a heritage site. This represents an encouraging level of engagement, however there remains significant potential for increasing participation. For example, figures from the US suggest that attendance at art museums, galleries and heritage sites showed a clear decline between 2002 and 2012. This is mirrored in recent UK figures; for example, visits to government sponsored museums and galleries declined by 0.8% in the single year from 2015/16 to 2016/17. To increase visitor numbers, and improve the experience for existing audiences, we need to develop a better understanding of visitors' responses and requirements. In line with this aim, this project will create a network to investigate the possibilities for using advanced data science to realise the full potential of museums' existing visitor data (e.g. visitor numbers, social media comments) in order to understand and improve visitor engagement.

Our multidisciplinary network comprises academics from History, Psychology, Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, in combination with a diverse team of British and American museums, heritage organisations and technology companies:

- Colonial Williamsburg (Virginia, US) is the world's largest living history museum, with over forty sites and two art museums.
- Historic Royal Palaces runs six of the UK's most iconic palaces, including the Tower of London and Hampton Court.
- The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, US) is one of America's oldest and most respected science museums.
- Sussex Past runs a variety of heritage sites and museums including Fishbourne Roman Palace, Lewes Castle and Anne of Cleves House.
- The JORVIK Group comprises five heritage attractions in the city of York, including the world-famous JORVIK Viking Centre.
- Royal Holloway's Picture Gallery boasts a world-class collection of Victorian art.
- Mechdyne is a leading innovator in visualisation, 3D, VR and machine learning in commercial contexts.
- Smartify is an SME with an app that allows museum visitors to receive detailed information using AR and museums to receive the data analytics generated.

The varied nature of these partnering cultural institutions will provide our network with a uniquely diverse range of perspectives that will be shared through a range of networking events and meetings. Our final meeting will identify concrete plans for future funded research projects and network development. The planned activities will also generate documentary records of the discussions. These will be disseminated across our partners and the AHRC with a view to informing the shape of future priorities in a constantly shifting technological landscape.

Planned Impact

1. Engagement with key stakeholders from the heritage, museum and technology sectors

This project will create a new interdisciplinary partnership comprising academics from four different departments together with UK and US heritage and technology experts. This network will be the fundamental output of the planned work. As part of our discussions, we will focus explicitly on future planning in order to identify opportunities for future network development and to ensure that we are ideally placed to develop applications for further funding. Our named partners will derive genuine benefits from their involvement in this new interdisciplinary network and the relationships that it will allow them to build with technology and heritage organisations alike.

2. Dissemination

Documentary records of the network's discussions will be distributed after each meeting, thereby giving partners tangible resources that they can immediately draw upon within their own institutions. The discussions will also be summarised in a final report to be disseminated across our partners and the AHRC.

3. Academic development

This project allows the academic team, including the research assistant and any PhD students who become involved, to develop advanced understanding of the potential application of data science in cultural institutions, providing career development for all team members and equipping them with enhanced capabilities for contributing to future projects that bring advanced technological approaches to cultural institutions.

4. Longer-term impacts

This project will have the potential for major impact upon the use of visitor data in heritage organisations, transforming the ways in which these institutions engage with their audiences. The findings will also have applicability well beyond visitor data to maximise the impact of all the other data that museums and heritage organisations possess. Indeed, the work will have applicability beyond heritage contexts, for data-driven enhancements of user experience in any sector.


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