Museum Life: audience surveillance and curation


As we enter another new year and look ahead to what’s coming up in exhibitions and future activities within the museum world, I thought it might be interesting to readers to highlight an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal last month, “When the Art is Watching You”, which raises some interesting questions about the future of museum curation.  The use of data culled from social media sites and audience feedback from platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been of interest to museums for a while now, but the installation of cameras and electronic beacons within the galleries, recording in real time visitor’s movements, perceived object preferences, and the immediate sending of related contextual or promotional information to visitors, is a relatively new venture. How long a visitor spends in front of an object, the heights or depths of audience interest in a particular exhibition, and the extension of the exhibition beyond the gallery space through retail-inspired offers of rewards and themed experiences have become new targets of focus for planning and shaping what is displayed or examined.

Much of the article’s inquiry focuses on privacy and the scope and depth of visitor surveillance.  But how would this approach, if vigorously utilized, affect fashion and costume curation and display? I would imagine it could have some significant impact for curators, conservators, collection managers, and exhibition preparation staff.  I think it’s fair to assume, based on decades of successful and well-attended—in some cases phenomenally attended—shows, that costume and fashion exhibitions are popular with the public.  But would advance public notice of exhibition ideas or scrutiny of the intensity of stops in the gallery result in a permanent heavy slant towards exhibitions of well-known names or showstopping couture, for example?

To “curate or adjust in real time”—is this exciting or terrifying? Curation changes responding to the lightning pace of social media favorites or daily gallery traffic could increase strain on already small and stretched departments, not to mention the objects themselves. For costume, very short-term displays are often anything but advantageous, and such an approach disregards the slow, long-term work and research and many behind-the-scenes steps that go into making an exhibition and creating a narrative within a space, virtual or physical. I find the most satisfying exhibitions, no matter how large or small or if they are crowd-pleasers or unexpected offerings, are those that are strong in focus and carefully considered.

With the gift shop potentially following the visitor throughout the galleries, would the fashion exhibition seem to those already suspicious of its merits like a mere extension of a shopping experience? More generally, do visitors want a museum “whisper[ing] in their ear”? How much do you want the museum you visit to know about you? Are visitors wanting to have their expectations so immediately and precisely met?  What about the loss of a feeling of discovery or serendipity?

Certainly there is value in museums gaining knowledge of audience interests, likes and dislikes.  There are many questions to consider, no doubt, in determining how to interpret and garner this knowledge. It will be interesting to see how the implementation and the results of these new technologies and strategies will actually impact curatorial planning and practice in the future.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.