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New Museum Technology Collects Data on Viewing Habits

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As Italy’s museums and galleries welcome back tourists and try to recoup some of the 190 million euros ($225 million) in revenue they lost last year, a new data project could help curators understand which paintings and sculptures will be their biggest draws.

A research team at the country’s new-technologies agency ENEA has developed a system based on devices that can calculate how long and how closely museum and gallery visitors observe a particular work of art.

Using cameras positioned near the artwork, the ShareArt system soaks up data on the number of observers and their behavior as they look at a painting, sculpture or artifact, including time elapsed and distance of observation.

That could help define “attraction value” for specific works of art, leading to changes in museum and gallery layout and exhibit scheduling, according to ENEA researchers Stefano Ferriani, Giuseppe Marghella, Simonetta Pagnutti and Riccardo Scipinotti.

Though the system originally conceived of by Scipinotti dates back to 2016, it’s only been rolled out for live trials in the last few weeks, following a government decision to fully reopen museums and galleries that had been largely shuttered due to the pandemic.

A ShareArt device next to a painting in the Istituzione Bologna Musei.

Source: Istituzione Bologna Musei

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Fourteen ShareArt devices are being put through their paces in a joint project with the Istituzione Bologna Musei, using a site that offers researchers the chance to try out their technology on exhibits with a wide array of artworks of various forms, periods and sizes, without compromising observers’ privacy.

“Thanks to simple data elaboration, an observer’s gaze can be translated into a graphic,” Ferriani said in an interview. “We can detect where most of peoples’ attention is concentrated.”

Looking at Trophime Bigot’s Saint Sebastian Aided by Saint Irene, for example, “we realized that observers tended to focus not on the center of the composition, but slightly to the right of the saint’s face, thanks to the interplay of light and shadow created by the artist’s brush.”

Glued to the Spot

ShareArt also tracks how many patrons stop in front of an artwork and how long they look. Very few works keep museum or gallery visitors “glued” to the spot for more than 15 seconds, the researchers said, with the average observation time at just 4 to 5 seconds.

Some of the researchers’ findings have been unexpected. Examining observer data from the two sides of a 14th-century diptych by Vitale degli Equi, data showed that “attention was immediately attracted to the ‘busier’ representation of Saint Peter’s blessing, to the right,” said Bologna Musei President Roberto Grandi. He was surprised to find that many visitors simply skipped the diptych’s left half.

relates to Italy’s Art Museums Are Open Again, and Big Data Is Watching

A ShareArt device next to the 14th-century diptych by Vitale degli Equi.

Source: Istituzione Bologna Musei

“Does it have to do with the fact that while someone observes an artwork, a glimpse of another one works its way into the corner of the eye?” Grandi asked. “Or is it a question of layout logistics? We have no magic formulas, but the more objective information we get, the more we can improve our offerings.”

The data could lead to changes in lighting, staging and placement of artworks in relation to one another, Grandi said, with findings suggesting that museums and galleries might want to rethink how to make some paintings and sculptures more visible and accessible.

The life-sized statue of Apollo of Veii, dating back to 510-500 B.C., is a case in point, the researchers said. Though the statue is one of the crown jewels at Rome’s National Etruscan Museum, a separate test of ShareArt showed that relatively few visitors give it the attention experts feel it deserves. Placement near the end of the collection, possibly chosen in a “best-for-last” approach, may be leading patrons to skip the artifact altogether, ENEA’s Marghella said.

In addition to opening the doors to art lovers, Italy’s gradual relaxation of Covid restrictions adds another wrinkle for data hunters. As mask restrictions are dropped, advanced techniques may allow ShareArt to assess observers’ facial expressions, allowing researchers to match quantitative data with cognitive psychology analysis, Grandi said.

Still, the team warns against making assumptions based on how people respond. “It would be misleading to draw too many conclusions about viewer behavior based on physical reactions to a piece of art,” Grandi said. “A smile can mean different things in different cultures.”

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