British Museum

The British Museum is using big data to help visitors learn more about history

Founded in 1753, the British Museum is the UK’s biggest visitor attraction and the second-most visited museum in the world, with around 6.5 million visitors a year.

The museum’s collection tells the stories of cultures from the dawn of human history, more than two million years ago, to the present day. Objects range from the earliest tools made by humans to more recent objects from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, the Middle East, Asia and Europe, as well as collections of prints and drawings. The British Museum is a museum of the world for the world, freely available to all.

However, the British Museum has no easy way to find out how people explore its building, what routes they take and what exhibits they engage with. With millions of visitors and more than 800,000 feet of gallery space, tracking this information by hand would be impossible.

That’s where big data comes in. In partnership with Microsoft, the British Museum is using big data analysis to ensure visitors have the information they need in the right place, at the right time and in the right language.

The British Museum has gathered information about visitors with their consent for some time – from museum audio guides, to interactive exhibits and other digital services – but the museum didn’t know how to harness it holistically. Information is shared in a number of ways from different systems, including basic FTP (file transfer protocols) or code such as R or Python.

The British Museum’s Big Data team, a group of data scientists, needed a way to navigate the mountain of visitor information within these digital sources. Their vision is to transform the British Museum into a data-driven operation by 2018, using data to shape experiences that visitors really want. Whenever the museum makes a decision, whether that’s extending opening hours or improving audio guides, the Big Data team wants to look to the data first.

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Working with Microsoft experts, the Big Data team ran an interactive “hackfest” – a two-day event designed to discover what insights the museum could mine from visitor data. The project aggregated anonymous information from audio guides and Wi-Fi hotspots, revealing the amount of time visitors spent at certain exhibits, what devices they were using to access information and in what language. The data was then run through Microsoft Azure and Power BI, Microsoft’s data analytics platform, to create interactive dashboards that the team could use to ask direct questions about visitor behaviour.

“For example, we asked where most people start their journey,” said Siorna Ashby, Senior Project Manager (Big Data), at the British Museum. “We assumed it was the Rosetta Stone on the ground floor, but we also saw people start on the second and third floor. Power BI made this very visual for us.”

“The British Museum did all of that work themselves,” said Andrew Fryer, Technical Evangelist at Microsoft, who supported the hackfest. “We just showed them the art of the possible.”