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Sure, the Dallas Museum of Art is in the business of preserving the analog artifacts that inspire and delight the masses. But its backers also know that the digital age is all about data -- and that when it comes to serving your community, the more you know about it the better.

And so, Bloomberg/Businessweek reports, museum directors have begun trading free museum memberships for visitors’ personal information. Give the museum your name, email address, phone number, and zip code if you like, and the museum will make you a member. More importantly, the museum will give you a card to swipe as you enter various galleries. In return, the magazine says, patrons can earn perks like free parking, gift shop discounts and admittance to special exhibits not covered by membership. It’s a way for museum administrators to know not only what exhibits are crowd pleasers, but what exhibits are crowd pleasers among particular demographics and segments of the museum’s audience. “In the past, all we’ve ever known is that some number of anonymous people have entered a space,” Robert Stein, the museum’s deputy director, told Bloomberg/Businessweek. The museum’s approach reminds me of my Safeway loyalty card: I tell Safeway pretty much everything I buy every week, and in return Safeway lets me score a good deal on my groceries. But beyond that, what the museum is doing is an acknowledgement that even expert curators don’t always know best. Sure, the experts can use their deep knowledge and training to put together an exhibit that is rich in context and provides a narrative of an artist’s life or a period in time. But guess who really knows what museum visitors want to see? Hint: museum visitors. “The DMA is using the data to learn which galleries are the most popular, which events attract visitors from city neighborhoods where museum membership is thin, and the rate of repeat visits,” Bloomberg/Businessweek reports. “It’s similar to the metrics relied on by online retailers,” Stein says, but ‘instead of clickstreams, you’re looking at streams of activity in a physical space.’ Mindful of privacy concerns, the museum tracks activity only when members decide to check in to the museum or scan a card in a gallery.” The museum, then, is well on its way to assembling a trove of information that essentially would allow museum visitors to dictate the kinds of exhibits the museum should stage. And it would allow the museum, if it chooses, to reach out to past visitors to let them know when shows are opening that are similar to ones they’ve enjoyed in the past. [caption id="attachment_6963" align="alignnone" width="300"] Dallas Museum of Art visitors register for free memberships Dallas Museum of Art visitors register for free memberships[/caption]

Museum officials have not said what bigger plans, if any, they have for using the data they gather; and a museum spokeswoman declined to make officials available for an interview.

There is every indication, however, that the membership program has already significantly expanded the museum’s reach. When the free membership program started just over a year ago, the museum had 18,000 members. Today the museum has 68,000 members and nearly two million records describing ways that visitors use the museum, Bloomberg/Businessweek reported. Increased visitors means more revenue from sources such as parking, the gift shop and the museum cafe, Bloomberg/Businessweek points out. And the bigger number provides a more compelling story for donors, who like to see a museum that attracts a diverse crowd. While personal privacy is always a concern, the museum is picking up on a trend in consumer preference: Customers are willing to share personal facts about themselves if doing so means they’re in for a better experience whether at the art museum, in the mall, or on a store’s website. A Harris Interactive poll taken late last year found that nearly 70 percent of consumers were willing to provide personal information if doing so meant they would receive more relevant emails about products, sales and the like. In fact, the poll found, 81 percent of consumers said such emails would make them at least somewhat more likely to buy more. Meantime, Cisco Consulting Services’ fourth annual survey of shopper behavior found that roughly half of consumers (52 percent) were willing to share personal information in return for discounts.

More than half were willing to share purchase history (57 percent) and name and age (56 percent) with retailers in order to build a better shopping experience.

In the museum world, gathering information about visitors’ likes and dislikes could personalize a patron’s experience, not so much by making sure the museum stocks its exhibits with art that a particular individual likes, but instead by making sure each particular individual knows when his or her favorites are available to see. No doubt drinking in a Monet in Dallas is different from buying a Banana Republic bag in Boise, but the Dallas Museum of Art’s embrace of data is another sign of the way the world and consumers’ influence on it are changing. (Photos courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art)