Watching you on Wi-Fi and Groupon

Southwest museums use various tools to glean visitor information

The Minneapolis Institute of Art cut its fiscal year 2021 budget by $4 million because of the coronavirus pandemic. File photo

The use of data analytics has become ubiquitous across workplaces big and small, from universities to small businesses and farms.

Museums, too, are becoming increasingly tech savvy, using data to better understand their visitors and more precisely cater advertising and programming.

The Southwest Journal checked in with three local museums — Hennepin History Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and The Museum of Russian Art — about how they use data to track visitors, choose their operating hours and gauge interest in exhibits.

Minneapolis Institute of Art

The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) collects data on its visitors through surveys, ticket sales and its Wi-Fi network.

The Whittier museum has used that information to help triple its membership in recent years — up to 55,000 from 18,000.

Tracking visitor attendance is difficult, because Mia does not charge for admission, said Eric Bruce, head of visitor experience
and insights. He said the museum has been able to glean information about its visitors through email queries to members and sales of tickets to special exhibits, among other efforts.

He said data gleaned through Wi-Fi routers, which track visitors’ Wi-Fi enabled cell phones — even if they don’t connect to the museum’s network — has helped Mia get a sense of how people flow through the building.

“The goal is to be able to learn more about what people are interested in so that [they] really feel seen,” he said.

Mia, which is open six days a week and has a permanent collection of over 89,000 objects, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Surveys from 2018 found that a quarter of visitors are members, up 7 percentage points from 2015, and that members visit an average of eight times each year.

Bruce, who has been with the museum since 2008, said Mia follows best practices when it comes to data privacy and doesn’t “research things we don’t need” or “keep data we don’t use.”

Bruce said the museum also looks at the qualitative data it collects in the form of interactions between visitors and front-of-house staff, such as security guards. He told the story of a Vietnam War veteran and frequent Mia visitor who had a difficult time with the museum’s special exhibit on Vietnam War-era art.

The man asked museum staffers if it would be possible to place an abstract sculpture of a wounded soldier in the exhibit. It wasn’t possible because of contractual obligations, Bruce said, but staffers ended up placing the sculpture on a different floor.

“Within the week to have a sculpture pulled out of storage because of something a visitor said — I think that’s pretty rare in museum work,” Bruce said.

Hennepin History Museum

Hennepin History Museum, located down the block from Mia, conducted a membership survey a few years ago but otherwise hasn’t had an “overt effort to collect [visitor] data in real time,” said John Crippen, who has been executive director since August.

Crippen, who previously worked at the Minnesota Historical Society, said that museum staffers likely have a better chance of getting to know visitors through face-to-face interactions, given that they receive such a small number of visitors — about a dozen a day.

He said the museum is analyzing the times of day when people visit in the hopes of answering the question, “Are we open the right hours for when people most want to come and see us?”

The museum is currently open 1 p.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Tuesday and 1 p.m.–8 p.m. Thursday. It’s closed every Monday.

Crippen said the museum doubled gallery attendance when it hosted the “Owning Up” exhibit that documented racial covenants built into property deeds in Minneapolis in the early 20th century.

He said goals for early in his tenure include increasing visits and membership.

“We just in general need to broaden the base of interest and support for the museum,” he said.

The Museum of Russian Art

During a 2018 analysis, The Museum of Russian Art in Windom discovered that it was “pushing out a lot of messages to ‘niche’ areas of interest,” development officer Alex Legeros said.

“The art lover of the Twin Cities wasn’t our primary focus in our communications,” he said.

Legeros said the museum, which has the equivalent of 8.5 full-time staff members, “reoriented what it did top to bottom.” It began looking more closely at its audience and targeting messaging toward it.

Legeros said the museum, which draws about 40,000 visitors annually, doesn’t have point-of-sale technology that can identify visitors’ zip codes from their credit cards. The museum gets some location data from the fraction of visitors who buy tickets on Groupon; Legeros said he knows that 70% of those visitors live in Southwest Minneapolis.

“We’re gaining a sense of who our members are,” he said, adding that the museum also uses pen-and-paper tools, such as guest books, to collect information.

In September, it had its biggest day ever in terms of visitor count at about 1,000. That was due to the Smithsonian Magazine’s Museum Day, an annual event in which people can receive no-cost admission to museums across the country by downloading free tickets. “If we had 1,000 people here every day, this place would just collapse,” Legeros said.