What if… we played Tinder with museum collections?

In the past year, I’ve moved cross-continent twice, to new cities where I knew between zero and one people. Both times, I’ve signed up for OKCupid almost immediately. Neither time was I actually looking for romantic prospects. I was looking for an hour or two of interesting conversation and, being me, to learn something new. There was a guy who helped first generation college students transition, and had great insights on teaching race and social justice to seventeen-year-olds. My favorite was the geologist who explained to me the difference between the volcanoes that formed Alaska and those that created Hawaii. I was new to an earthquake zone! I was fascinated!

As a UX person, I couldn’t help but notice how well the site is designed to lead you down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, exploring the humanity before you. Each individual’s carefully crafted profile page ends with a sidebar for “similar users,” as though they were products on Amazon.com. Pictures pop up: a “similar” human, but this one is taller, more arrogant, more outgoing? It’s a somewhat terrible statement on dating in the 21st century, but it’s a fascinating insight into how we spend time online.

Online collections are a tough nut to crack. There are models that I love: the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Cooper Hewitt’s Wikipedia-style intervention, which pedagogically positions itself as a living document… and a collection that you can search by hex value. The Rijksmuseum’s super shiny online playground, of course. But let’s say you’re on SFMOMA’s ArtScope and you find something intriguing under the microscope,… over than half the time, there’s no “Learn More” button to be had. No substantive conversation to be had in the collection record. Which, with over 30,000 objects in the collection, is the reality of the game even for a top-tier institution. But for the user, it’s a bad date. They wanted a two hour chat with that volcanologist. None of us have the resources to provide that for every record.

This is where I started thinking about Tinder. (Disclaimer, I’ve only played around on a friend’s account, so I may get some of the mechanics wrong.) The fun of Tinder—other than the hope of meeting the love of your life, of course—is swiping left and swiping right. Yes or no. Flip a few photographs. Read less than 20 words. Or just, instantaneous snap judgement. Swipe, swipe, swipe. While they’re commuting on the train. Sitting on the couch with friends and a glass of wine. Swipe, swipe, swipe. Look who I found. Check this one out. You see something strange, or funny, or beautiful and you call over your friends to look together. … Which is exactly the behavior we want to see in museums.

So what could this look like? Actually relatively simple. There’s no built in personalization on Tinder, (except what users are near you). So all it would be is a randomized stream of our collections images: tombstone info as captions, maybe displaying extra photos such as details or X-rays if they’re in the record. Why not? Then, as users swipe left and right, they either add the images to their personal collection or they discard them, creating a personalized gallery of their favorites at the museum. (Which, incidentally, is a feature we keep adding to Online Collections without instructions to the average user as to how and why they could use it.)

This is where it gets fun. What they’ve generated is a list of paintings that they’d probably get to know better, if offered. Which means we can offer. Let’s say one of their matches goes on view: shoot them an email, “I just got back in town. Come say hello sometime?” If there’s a work is in an upcoming gallery talk ask, “Date night? I’m on the six p.m. Biennial tour this Friday.” And if you do have those two hour, how the Hawaiian islands were formed, knock the ball out of the park content for a piece, play matchmaker! “I see you liked James Guy’s Modern Man. Why not get to know him a little better?” Other than a little creative writing, these are low investment, high reward: the exact same email goes to anyone who had included the work as a favorite. Once you’ve set up your mail serv, it’s done.

Is this a bit silly? Absolutely! But it could also change the way especially novice visitors experienced our museum. Personalized invitations. Opportunities to learn more, tailored to your interests. But also, what would it feel like to walk into a gallery and spot a painting you’d swiped right (yes) on? What about one you’d swiped left? Would it make you smile? Would you tell the person that you were with? Would it make you go over to look at it in person?

I’ve been working in museums for seven years. I walk into a gallery and half the time, I spot an old friend across the room: maybe it’s a Monet, maybe it’s a Henry Moore. I’d love to build something that helps everyone feel that way.


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