Museums, Found Data, & Proactive Learning
How can research-practice partnerships help museums make proactive use of found data?
In 2022, Myseum of Toronto launched a new exhibit in their gallery space called "36 Questions that Lead to Loving Toronto." Designed by Myseum's Director of Programming, Nadine Villasin Feldman, the exhibit drew inspiration from a 2015 New York Times article (which in turn was based on a 1997 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) exploring whether strangers can develop an intimate connection with each other simply by answering a series of personal questions.
The exhibit was the first in Myseum's permanent gallery space, and it included a variety of interactives asking visitors about their perspectives on Toronto. Question prompts hung around the exhibit space allowed visitors to engage in a variety of different ways. As an easy fun activity, visitors could vote on what food they thought was most representative of Toronto. Deeper questions asked visitors to write in what they wished Torontonians would care more about. Paper arrows allowed visitors to name one thing that was truly unique about the city. Visitors could also pin locations on a map, such as a spot they loved most in Toronto, or a place they did not feel welcome. Those with more time could record "voicemail" answers to such prompts as "What was your most treasured Toronto memory?" or write a love letter to the city describing what their perfect Toronto day would consist of. After the exhibit launched, Myseum expanded on this, erecting pop-up installations around the city.
In 2022, Knology formally began to work with Myseum to understand the breadth and depth of the data they had collected. With over 17,000 unique answers collected, Myseum had a wealth of data on how visitors perceive Toronto, its culture, food, political issues, and iconic institutions. Interpreting this found data presented exciting challenges. We found ourselves pondering questions such as who the audience was, and what the data could actually tell us about Torontonians. We also considered what was missing from people's answers and had to hypothesize what these absences meant.
To productively think through questions like this, we took a collaborative approach to data interpretation, working together with Myseum staff in ways that drew upon our respective areas of expertise in research and practice. Through collective meaning-making, we arrived at a set of shared conclusions about the significance of this found data.
The process began with a Museum Data Charette convened by Myseum and Surface Impression, with participants from Knology, Arts Etobicoke, the cities of Kingston and Toronto, Destination Toronto, Tangled Art + Disability, and Lord. The day was devoted to exploring the role of found data, and how museums and other cultural institutions can interact with their visitors to engage in proactive learning from visitors. We discussed the importance of embedded data collected as text, audio, or digital feedback, as well as the role of audience identification. Knology overviewed techniques for collecting and storing data for future analysis. The charette also included case studies presented by Myseum and Arts Etobicoke, which allowed for group discussion of questions pertaining to participating organizations' key concerns (be it data ethics, privacy, or finding time to integrate data collection into museum culture). By the end of the event, all participants had arrived at a shared understanding of best practices surrounding found data.
After the charette, Knology held a workshop with the Myseum team, collaboratively discussing initial findings and looking at the data from different angles to draw out the meaning of people's responses. Often, we visualized this data – as was the case for answers to the exhibit's six "Heart Marks the Spot" questions, which we plotted on a map of Toronto's 158 neighborhoods. Working together in this fashion allowed the Myseum and Knology teams to ascertain patterns in the data, and to also think about the sources of these patterns. For example, when confronted with data showing strong audience preferences for parks and green spaces, we considered whether this finding was a reflection of the pandemic, a product of where pop-up installations were located throughout the city, or an indication of something unique about Toronto. As noted above, we also navigated the meaning of answers not present, contemplating what these absences could tell us about the perspectives of visitors and resident Torontonians.
Findings and a full report to follow later this summer.
Cover photo courtesy of Myseum of Toronto