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Maths and philosophy make museum intelligent

01 May 2013

Suppose you are visiting a museum. You buy a ticket, put it in your pocket, then walk into the museum. Every couple of seconds while you are looking around, antennas record where you – and your ticket – are. Because your route through the museum is being tracked, the computers soon know what you find interesting. And the museum makes use of that information. All the touch screens tell you precisely what you want to know.

This scenario might seem far-fetched, but it could soon be reality, as was demonstrated at ‘Give Every Visitor His Own Collection’, a conference on the Museumplus project last week at the Drents Museum. Museumplus is the result of close collaboration between the University of Groningen and the Drents Museum, incorporated in the Trovato Foundation, with the aim of studying and enriching the visitor experience.

‘Before you can enrich the visitor experience, you first have to get to know the visitor’, explains Ernst Wit, Professor of Statistics and Probability at the University of Groningen. ‘That is why, until now, we have simply tracked visitors and studied their behaviour.’ Together with Jan-Willem Romeijn (Professor of the Philosophy of Science), Wit is participating in Museumplus as a researcher. They started off the conference by explaining their role in Museumplus.

Get to know the visitor

The museum ticket has a chip built into it, similar to the public-transport chipcard. ‘Antennae everywhere in the building track the location of the ticket. So we know which route visitors choose, how long they spend looking at a particular object, and which ones they skip. The data from hundreds of visitors are stored and fed into mathematical models. ‘With the model we soon found out that visitors can be generally divided into three categories: people who mainly view art exhibits, people who are mainly interested in the history of Drenthe, and people who look at everything,’ says Wit. ‘After just a couple of objects we can place a visitor in one of the categories.

Theory in practice

Wit became involved with Museumplus a few years ago. He saw it as an interesting challenge that also fitted in well with his field of research. ‘I study the question of what large data sets can do. These antennae generate very large volumes of data. So it’s an interesting application of a theoretical problem.’

In Romeijn’s view, Museumplus is also interesting from a philosophical perspective. ‘It’s a fascinating challenge to relate all those data in a useful way to the knowledge and expertise that is already present in the museum. It poses fundamental questions for us: what do we do in museums, and how does heritage acquire significance for us?’ Highly theoretical discussions thus align with concrete questions from industry and society.

Intelligent museum

As far as the staff of the Drents Museum are concerned, their museum will soon actually become ‘intelligent’. A museum where the information adapts itself to the visitor, so that the visitor can also see – albeit on a screen – items from the collection that are not in the display cabinets.

But once the monitoring equipment is placed in the museum, it can be used to do much more, as the conference attendees – mainly staff from other museums – learned. For example, when a particular room is crowded, the information screens can direct visitors to items that are of interest to them in other rooms. Visitors are therefore distributed more evenly throughout the museum.

The data on visitor behaviour can also be used to optimize the layout of the museum. Parts of the museum that attract few visitors can be made more attractive, for example by changing the lighting. The effect of the change can be seen straightaway in the data on visitor behaviour.

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Last modified:26 June 2018 09.59 a.m.
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