Digital engagement and the art museum visitor

By Matthew Petrie

Back in 2013 I wrote an article on digital technology in museums based on research we had completed for several museums on mobile engagement.
(Dear Museums: The Time is Right to Embrace Mobile for The Guardian newspaper).

Three years on it’s great to see more and more museums embracing digital innovations, and according to our research, this is a worthwhile investment. A recent study undertaken for The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida highlighted several interesting findings.

A majority of art museum visitors use their mobile devices during a museum visit. Incidence varies by age, with 81% of millennials engaging with their device during a visit. Usage is highest among visitors who have visited an art museum in the last two years (73%) compared to 45% two years ago.

“To most people I know, their phone is practically part of their body! Museums have started to accept this ‘connected society,’ and moreover started to embrace it,” said Kathy Greif, Dalí Museum Marketing Director. She furthered, “Museums are a social space – they’re meant to provoke ideas. And today, ideas are shared most rapidly and widely through a web of social networks. We have to not only allow people to use it when they’re here, but encourage it. Having said that, while we’re constantly seeking ways to engage our audiences, there has to be a balance. Whatever digital experience we introduce, it can’t disturb the organic environment for visitors who may want nothing to do with it.”

In addition to mobile devices, usage of digital technology in museums is growing, with over 70% of Florida visitors reporting their engagement with digital technology during an art museum visit in the last two years. The features most frequently mentioned were touch screen, audio tour, video and apps.

Most importantly for museums - especially in guiding future innovation – is that the positive impact of digital technology on visitors is extremely high, with 93% of respondents stating that it enhanced their visit. When probed on how it enhanced the overall experience, the answer was clear: it provided more information. Respondents felt this gave them increased knowledge and enabled them to learn more. In addition, they described these components as immersive, fun and enjoyable, often allowing them to set their own pace for a visit.

Not surprisingly, interest in exhibits that include digital technology is high – with 50% of the overall sample saying they would be ‘very interested’ in these features to enhance their experience.

These findings reinforce that digital technology and features facilitate art museums to achieve greater engagement, allowing their visitors to digest and learn more.

Greif remarked, “People are starting to expect more – they’re not all interested in ‘just’ looking at art. We’re working to leverage digital devices and applications to provide visitors with opportunities to experience and appreciate art in new ways. Our Dreams of Dali virtual reality experience is a perfect example. It lets you inside – and beyond – one of Dali’s famous works; and with that, lets your imagination soar.”

Kathy Greif will be speaking on a related topic (“Using Selfie Culture to Engage Audiences”) at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting & Expo in Washington DC in May.

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