Mapping and Museums in the Digital Age

Dec 16

Hamish Robertson and Nick Nicholas argue that maps and mapping are increasingly central to the museum and its activities in a digital age.

Maps have long been exhibits in and tools for museums. Historical maps are frequently works of art as well as science, information or even propaganda. Contemporary maps (such as those above which demonstrate the radically different distribution of people over 65 [on the left] to tourists [right] around Manchester, UK) are usually the product of digital technologies which collect and visualise data in software environments such as geographic information systems (GIS). This entire field is now commonly known as giscience because of the increasing interconnection between hardware, software and applications.

Mapping and the modern museum
So what do mapping technologies have to do with the modern museum? The answer is, actually quite a lot. Current spatial technologies include the types often seen on television programmes such as Time Team, with satellite imagery, civilian drones, aerial photogrammetry, ground penetrating radar (GPR), global positioning systems (GPS) and LiDAR (light detection and ranging). Recent large-scale applications of these technologies can be seen in the work being done in Cambodia at Angkor Wat, in new archaeological findings in the UK near Stonehenge or in the plans to LiDAR scan Machu Picchu in Peru. Spatial technologies have also been used for a variety of heritage activities such as cataloguing and indexing oral history materials, recording indigenous peoples’ environments and histories, and increasingly to link qualitative research information to specific locations.

Mapping your visitors
The same technologies can be applied to the work museums do with their visitors. If you want to know how big a geographic catchment you have for visitors, you can collect and map their data in your own GIS package to analyse demographic, locational and travel patterns. International and local visitors can easily be included in the same system as well as segmenting visitors by their preferences, interests and activities. Museum members and volunteers can be mapped to analyse possible travel patterns, modes of transport or time limits to their travel. Donors can be mapped to see if they share similar socio-economic or related characteristics, or to locate where people contribute the most to the museum – be that in time or financial terms. Once input into the GIS, all this data and its analysis are fully digital, making it potentially accessible to different groups within the museum (curators, exhibit staff, management, financial, marketing, visitor studies etc.) in order to support different decision-making needs. 

Knowing the who and where of these different contributors to the museum and its activities means the user can also identify gaps and target them for additional promotional, research or engagement. Key visitor segments can be mapped and estimated to manage promotional programmes or outreach activities, especially when funds are limited and results need to maximised. If you do specific activities with community groups such as children, older people or people with disabilities, you can map local cohorts of older people, retirement living facilities, schools or disability organisations who might engage with your programmes.

As the sector grows, museums are facing funding challenges: many heritage institutions are either in competition with each other for visitors’ time and money or having to cooperate to maximise value for themselves and partner organisations. GIS and related spatial technologies can support these processes (how many people went to x or y museums, how often and where did they come from, which people spent more money and where do they live?).

Mapping interiors
A rapidly developing aspect of this field lies in using spatial technology to monitor peoples’ behaviour within buildings or defined spaces. Where did they spend the most time? Which specific exhibits did they visit or not visit? Does our layout and directional information support or hinder the visiting process? Are we seeing anticipated or unanticipated behaviours?

Museums are rich and often complex spatial environments. One of the more obvious aspects of this is that their displayed exhibits are only a fraction of their collections. Knowing what they have, who visits and where different types of things are located are all important issues in sustaining the museum and its programmes. Museums have always included maps as artefacts but the time is coming to integrate mapping more closely into both the museum’s analogue and digital work. The map and mapping are, we propose, increasingly central to the museum and its activities in this emerging digital age.

About the authors
Hamish Robertson is a geographer and the editor of The Caring Museum: New Models of Engagement with Ageing (MuseumsEtc 2015). Nick Nicholas specialises in demography, geographic information systems and spatial marketing strategies.





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