2018: A Data-Driven Approach to Exhibitions

The office at Vastari feels full of energy.

Our company has doubled in size in 2017, both in terms of team and turnover. We brought in a number of new skills that have taken our work to the next level. But the buzz in the office is not only about the new recruits. Our existing team members have also taken a step in a different direction when working with exhibitions, museums and collections at Vastari.

In between quick comments on the state of Ripple or Bitcoin, an opinion on the latest episode of Black Mirror or a debate about capitalism in the 21st century, our 12 person team is working hard to change the way exhibitions work using a data-driven approach.

Some challenges exist: we know that we are working within an industry famous for being slightly more cautious about innovation, slow in adopting new technologies and wary of any relationships between the public and private sector. But we are optimistic that our work will deliver results. One could think that this optimism is the result of millenial naivete. I would argue that the optimism comes from our whole team’s decision to focus to a data-driven approach, and an acknowledgement that the world as a whole is changing.

Vastari already has gathered a lot of data over the past 6 years. Our address book numbers over 22,000 contacts in the museum and culture industry worldwide, Vastari Institutions has over 5,160 listings and we have hundreds of users logging into our platforms every month. We are on the phone non-stop, we ask inquisitive questions and as a result we keep learning more and more about our clients.

But it’s not just about this accumulation. 2018 is the year we’re planning to make that data go further.

So far, the culture industry has relied heavily on word-of-mouth. Vastari, in its infancy the past years, has been emulating that word-of-mouth approach online. We help start conversations between a curator and a collector or between an exhibition producer and a venue, but then it quickly reverts to the way things have worked for many years.

It’s tough to change the entire process in one go. No one has ever attempted to do what we do at scale before, and really, it’s pretty hard to do as there is no comprehensive data on the industry that can be relied on.

Let’s take a first example. We know there are at least 80,000 museums around the world, with an estimated 25,000 in USA, 25,000 in Europe and 30,000 in the rest of the world. But go to the American Alliance of Museums website, and they only list 4,203 museums who have taken their pledge of excellence, despite being an organisation that is over 100 years old. Go to the International Council of Museums website, and they state to work with about one fourth of the overall international museums community (about 20,000). If you look a bit deeper at their data (only accessible to members), there are numerous duplicates and out-of-date institutions.

The last one to review is ChinaMuseum, endorsed by the Chinese Museums Association just 2 years ago, and they are probably the ones who have done the most and best in terms of digitisation. They mention “There are some 4,692 museums all over China, hosting more than 20,000 exhibitions every year and attracting more than 720,000,000 visitors.” - but they only have engaged about a fourth of those museums on their platform.

At Vastari, we haven’t yet improved it much (yet). We have more on Vastari Institutions than most other entities, but we looked at ourselves honestly and decided that it’s important to get more data that’s usable. So we hired Oliver Hajjar, our new Business Analyst for institutions, who will be getting deeper data about all of our partners, from searches, phone calls, questionnaires and surveys.

But it’s not only Oliver who will be looking at data. Phil wrote about our data-driven approach to Marketing and UX last month, and he is the first to look at the numbers when making decisions about campaigns, strategy and content marketing. Lukas, our UX Designer, is using data from heat maps as well as face-to-face interviews to figure out how our customers use the portal and how to improve it.

Cristina and the matchmaking team are also learning from all the work we’ve done last year to adjust the strategies for our exhibition producer clients. Our partner matching is improving with every new exhibition, as we get to know how museums work in different parts of the world, what they expect, how they prefer to structure deals and what they’re looking for in a partnership. Alexandra has been working on mapping how museums work with private collectors and fulfilling their requests. Liviu is using data to figure out who needs our service and how to deliver effective results.

Our tech team (Jordi, Mishal, Valeri and Andrea) is thinking about how to combine all of these things effectively on our platform, from how we improve the listings of institutions, exhibitions and collections online. This year, we even have a plan for finally integrating the professionals into the platform, so that we can help independent curators and academics to get involved in the conversation too. The data from our surveys shows that many important exhibition projects are spearheaded by one or two academics with an idea.

Lastly, we are finally going to be working with some of the world’s largest institutions on how to make all of this data more accessible in different ways using the newest tech, ranging from distributed ledgers to virtual reality. But again, we have to look at the data to determine whether the museum industry ready for this type of innovation. From first-hand interviews to proof of concepts, we are testing our assumptions to assure that what we build will actually be useful.

So, it’s a big year, with high targets and ambitious goals. No wonder the whole office is buzzing. Using this newly designed blog, we’ll keep you up to date on our progress.

Post image: Yayoi Kusama Studio Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life 2011 © Yayoi Kusama/Yayoi Kusama Studio, Inc