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Curating Curiosity: How Data Viz Can Enhance the Museum Experience

Data visualization can level up exhibits for both visitors and curators

When I was living in Paris at the beginning of this year, I went to a minimum of three museums a week. While this luxury was made possible by the combination of an ICOM card and unemployment, it was founded on a passion for museums. Looking back, some of my favorite museum exhibits were on topics that were originally uninteresting to me, but they all exemplified some level of data visualization use, such as interactive maps and information design. After researching digital initiatives and data visualization in museums, I came to the conclusion that in addition to enhancing the in-person experience, data visualization can further be used to enhance the digital experience, and even as a brainstorming tool for curators.

Digitalizing Collections

With museums closed nationwide due to COVID-19, visiting museums’ digital collections has been the safest and often only way to visit museums. Digitalization of museum collections didn’t originate during the COVID-19 era, however. Last year, the Cleveland Museum launched an open-access project allowing a website-viewing of their collections. Visitors can search by department, work type, etc., and even by how many views and clicks each piece has received as if it were a popularity contest. Other notable digital initiatives include the State Library of NSW that has an experimental, bird’s-eye view of their collection, Tate Museum with their online digital collection and collection dataset available to download, and the Cooper Hewitt, where you can search the collection by nontraditional methods like “tallest,” “shortest,” “widest,” etc. Digitalized collections not only allow prospective visitors to strategize their visit but also make collections accessible to wishful visitors at antipodes.

Screenshot of the State Library of NSW’s digital collection

Going digital now could have huge implications for the future in terms of potential income revenues and creative curation. Beyond accessibility, digital collections could serve as preparation for a disaster similar to COVID-19. Museums were hit hard, and it’s not difficult to imagine various monetary gains from novel digital museum ventures: from paid guided visits to online membership catalogs for viewing collections, which would be akin to exhibition catalogs that are features of every museum bookstore. Digitalizing collections is furthermore the first step toward globally visualizing collections. This alone is powerful, as it allows viewers around the world to not only view collections but explore them and draw relationships between different pieces. These two points tie into a larger benefit: it’s an avenue for creativity, innovation, and exploring stories untold and lurking in museum collections.

Developing New Stories

While navigating digital collections permits the visitor to hop between rooms, so to speak, in-person visits are not much of a choose-your-own-adventure. If you begin an exhibition, you step into a curated experience that leads you through a story, usually concluding in the gift shop. More often than not, the story thread is time, and subplots could be art movements like cubism, or impressionism, or even a particular artist. Can you think about the most unique museum exhibition that you experienced? What was unique about it?

My first taste of creative curation was during a visit to the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), in California. I’ll be honest that I didn’t have high expectations. I expected local artists, and at least one Picasso reject, organized by time or artist. Instead, the curators pulled from nontraditional relationships. Rather than group them chronologically, the curators arranged the works by subject or basic theme, as light; pieces separated by hundreds of years were compared instead of contrasted.

This decision allowed me to spot relationships between works that I might’ve missed had they been divided by walls and space. Although I’m unsure that BAMPFA used data visualization for ideation, data visualization techniques can be used to clearly view relationships that might not seem obvious at first. Being able to compare multiple works side by side or to filter through massive museum collections with the press of a button facilitates conceptualizing relationships between pieces.

A beautiful example of this is the Codex Atlanticus, which allows viewers to explore drawings and writings of Leonardo Da Vinici by subject, topic, year, and numerical order. Applied to a museum collection, such a system allows easy access to experimentation with the entire exhibition malleable at the touch of your fingertips. Like BAMPFA, other methods of content organization such as color, topic, substrate, etc. are all too easy to discover with data visualization techniques.

Whereas data visualization alone is more exploratory, designing infographics is all about telling a story. If more curators implemented infographics, they would be therefore forced to ask themselves, “What story do we want to tell?” and “How can we best tell it?” While a “traditional” approach may be appropriate, such as using chronology as the underlying story thread, this might not always be the case. Data visualization techniques could thus be beneficial to brainstorming during the ideation and exhibition development stages.

From Giorgia Lupi’s Draw Your Visit With Data Workshop

Giorgia Lupi’s Draw Your Visit With Data workshop that was hosted at the SFMOMA demonstrates one such method. During the session, attendees explored an exhibition with works linked only by chronology and were instructed to find their own story by using data. Connections ranged from concrete information like the artist’s demographics to their own subjective feelings. Curators could use a similar technique to promote ideation and realize relationships between works. The existence of a digital collection or preexisting data set and some data visualization skills would only ease this exercise.

Exhibition Experience

Upon entering an exhibition, you are following the curator’s story and logic. In an exhibition on Native American history, for example, you might find a map with tribes’ locations, whereas in an exhibition on Ancient Egypt, you’d find a timeline documenting its golden years and its fall. Curators often use maps, chronologies, and other infographics to fill in story holes or to provide ample context. I was especially grateful for infographics when I visited the Tolkien exhibition at Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. Next to an overwhelming timeline of Middle Earth that spanned at least 10 feet was a map projected on the wall that cycled through Middle Earth’s races and the location of each population. The use of supplementary material not only added depth to the exhibition, but furnished a foundation, and context, regardless of the visitor’s background. It is additionally useful for capturing attention from afar and making traditional textual content more attiring and skim-friendly.

Interactive visualizations go one step further. Despite my love for museums, I am not one to spend all day at one. In fact, my visits tend to last only an hour or two. I reach a point where I can’t absorb any more text, and everything blurs together despite my 20/20 vision. Interactive exhibitions are a well-deserved break from digesting heavy material by providing contact with the content to allow for a more immersive experience. This type of information exploration can be done alone or collaboratively, thus supporting a solitary or sociable museum visit alike. Beyond recognizing the social aspect of museum visits, implementing data visualization can invoke a deeper curiosity and an incentive for deeper exploration of the content.

From Accurat’s The Room of Change

Data Visualization isn’t confined to supplementary materials but can serve as the feature of an exhibition, as notably demonstrated by Giorgia Lupi and Accurat, the data visualization studio that she cofounded. The SF MoMa purchased her and Stefanie Postavec’s Dear Data journey, while the XXII Triennale di Milano exhibited Accurat’s The Room of Change in their Broken Nature exhibit. The latter exhibition is composed of a “data tapestry” representing environmental changes in the past few centuries. Instead of illustrating the trends, the exhibition replicates its pattern so that the visitors can experience the change rather than passively view it. By employing data visualization’s storytelling and aesthetic techniques, this intersection of art and education can be a powerful tool for conveying information. Instead of being limited to a piece of paper that you analyze, the data becomes an experience, resulting in a bigger impact.

Supporting Fast and Slow Thinking

Visualizations can support both fast and slow thinking: integrating visual elements help the viewer to get a quick overview of the data or phenomenon, however complex. Incorporating data visualization into museums therefore not only enriches the museum experience with supplementary material or as a storytelling technique, but I believe it can also aid the exhibition curation. It allows us to see common threads that might not have been visible before, such as organizing works by shape or substrate. Nevertheless, “data” has strong algorithmic, or scientific connotation and can scare those unfamiliar with it. We thus need to mold it to speak our language.

Human-centric data visualization is exactly as Giorgia Lupi advocates:

“We are ready to question the impersonality of a merely technical approach to data, and to begin designing ways to connect numbers to what they really stand for: knowledge, behaviors, people.”

If museums are collections of humanity, data visualization can be a powerful tool that enhances creative curation and offers new potential for an immersive, impactful museum experience.



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