If museums face an uncertain future, you wouldn’t know it from “Henri Matisse: The Cutouts,” which recently drew 664,000 to the Museum of Modern Art. The show was so thronged that MoMA kept its doors open round-the-clock on the closing weekend last month.

But blockbusters like Matisse may be deceptive. Art museum attendance dipped 5 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Museumgoers 75 and older were the only age group to increase over that period. The guardians of posterity must be concerned about the future, no matter how long the lines may be.

Curators worry most about millennials. How do static galleries of canvas and artifact engage a generation raised on the reactive pleasures of right swipes and hyperlinks? How do you sell Goya when “Game of Thrones” is a click away?

Internet technology presents diversions, but may also offer new ways of engaging younger visitors in art, science and history. This year many museums will install a new form of Bluetooth technology known as beacons. Patrons who download a smartphone app can be tracked within a few feet as they wander the galleries. The beacons can detect whether they’re standing at a Warhol print or a Cartier-Bresson photograph and, like a digital docent, can beam them a rich feed of information about those works, including audio talks, videos and reviews.

“The beacons amplify the experience,” said Brendan Ciecko, founder of Cuseum, a Boston start-up that is testing beacons in the Neue Galerie in New York and the List Visual Arts Center at M.I.T., among other museums. “Tech can, and should, bring joy and enrichment to galleries.”

The technology “provides visitors with an effortless, rich mechanism that allows them to opt in or opt out for as much as they want to know,” said Elizabeth E. Barker, director of the Boston Athenaeum, which will begin using beacons in time for a show on the Marquis de Lafayette in June. Graphic panels can now be moved online, she added, affording a less cluttered encounter between patron and art.

More important, beacons allow for an alternative to the old convention of top-down exhibitions, in which curators and other experts impart a single authoritative view. Visitors may now post a lively mix of reactions, reviews and rebuttals to exhibitions and individual works, just as readers do in online newspaper comment fields and restaurantgoers do on Yelp.


An app created by Mr. Ciecko. Museums are trying to engage a generation accustomed to right swipes and hyperlinks. CreditKatherine Taylor for The New York Times

The result is a cross between curating and crowdsourcing, a two-way conversation. “You shouldn’t have to be a professional curator to have a voice that matters,” said Robert Stein, deputy director of the Dallas Museum of Art, which has experimented with a variety of location-aware technologies but is not currently using beacons.

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an arm of the American Alliance of Museums, pointed out that remarks written in virtual comment fields could relate shows to current issues in a way that curators usually cannot.

“The time required to compose and print graphic labels makes it impossible to be of-the-moment,” she said, adding that an exhibition on race riots might prompt visitors to relate them to the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo. “Now you have the historical echo,” Ms. Merritt said.

Apple and other companies started beacon technology two years ago with retail use in mind, but cultural institutions have latched onto the possibilities. Most major museums, including the Guggenheim and the Met, are in various stages of testing and installation — no small job. Coverage requires hundreds of puck-size transmitters. For the Boston Athenaeum, the cost is the equivalent of “throwing one gala fund-raiser,” Dr. Barker said.

Inevitably, some museums, the Frick Collection in New York and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston among them, will choose to maintain galleries as places of quiet contemplation undisturbed by the jangle of phone alerts. “We all want to preserve the gallery as an escape,” Mr. Stein said. “We have to make beacons part of an elegant experience. If we fail, then the public gets annoyed.”

The benefits of audience data may be too great to resist. For one thing, beacons allow museums to send personalized messages based on visitors’ past behavior.

Nobody knows if the guests’ collective likes and dislikes will influence curatorial decisions. “Does a museum deliver what the market appears to ask for?” asked Susie Wilkening, who, as senior consultant at Reach Advisors, specializes in audience research for museums. “Do they ignore areas that don’t test well?”

Add to these hypotheticals the possibility of exchanging data with a company like Google, which would afford museums a depth of knowledge about patrons’ preferences. “These are the issues museums are now discussing,” Ms. Wilkening said.

As with many aspects of modern life, patrons who opt for beacon apps willingly trade a measure of privacy for the benefit of a more personalized interaction with art.

“My sense is that beacons aren’t a life raft,” Dr. Barker said, “but a bridge to the next generation of museum users.”

Source: The New York Times