Pandemic Pushes Museums Deeper Into Digital Age
For years, museums have been seeking to transform their missions for the digital age. The coronavirus pandemic has put that transformation front and center.
When museums were forced to shut their physical doors this spring, they simultaneously enhanced their online offerings, creating new ways for the public to experience their collections and spaces virtually. In fact, say insiders and consultants, museums increasingly are behaving almost like media-production companies, seeking to tell the stories behind their collections and exhibits in ways that entertain, as well as educate. Their goal is to continue to connect with traditional audiences—those who regularly visit museums and often become members and donors—while reaching out to new audiences via podcasts, virtual tours, YouTube videos and social-media posts.
“We are content providers,” says Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with the content being “the objects in our collection, the history of those objects and the history of how people reacted to them.”
Whether this new digital content eventually generates additional revenue for museums remains to be seen. But some experts say museums have to evolve if they want to stay relevant.
“They have to compete with other types of media out there—films, television,” says Rich Cherry, managing partner at Museum Operations, a Culver City, Calif., consulting firm. “That’s their competition.”
A major platform
Of course, many of the institutions were already engaging with people virtually well before the pandemic took hold.
Many museums offer virtual tours of their current exhibitions and spaces on their websites, as well as games and interactive features for children. Some museums allow online visitors to upload images of their favorite works and “curate” their own private exhibits, while others have downloadable apps that allow in-person visitors to point their phones at artwork and listen to a discussion about the piece.
But the pandemic drove home the importance of engaging with people where they are—which increasingly is online—and offering them a regular supply of new content.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art may be best known for its sprawling beaux-arts-style building housing an encyclopedic collection of cultural objects, but it also produces content for a world-wide audience. The museum’s website “is a major platform for that engagement,” says Met director Max Hollein.
The Met, which closed on March 13 and plans to reopen Aug. 29, launched an augmented-reality experience during the shutdown that allows online visitors with iOS devices to project an ancient sculpture known as a zemí cohoba stand into their own homes or wherever they might be. Users can rotate the stand as a Met curator describes how such objects were used in ceremonies by the Taíno people of the Caribbean. The Met also launched a share tool on its website for gamers who want to incorporate artwork from the Met into the spaces they create in “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” a popular videogame from Nintendo.
The Met said that the week after it closed its doors to the public, there was a ninefold increase in traffic on its MetKids pages, where children can watch videos on how to re-create a dance scene from a Degas painting, create a stain-glassed window or do Japanese Origami, among other things. Traffic for its Met 360 series of short videos that provide virtual tours of some of the Met’s most popular spaces set to music surged more than 4,000%.
While traffic has slowed from that initial spike, a Met spokeswoman says about 5.5 million visitors came to the museum’s website and social-media pages between March 12 and May 14, up 34% from the period between Jan. 8 and March 11.
The Art Institute of Chicago, which reopened on Thursday, stepped up the number of videos it offers on its website during the shutdown, uploading new interactive features about objects in its permanent collection each week. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which reopened May 21, hosted free virtual yoga classes on its Facebook Live page in March and April. (Over the past several years, the museum has teamed up with health partners to offer free exercise sessions in some of its outdoor spaces as part of a community-wellness initiative.)
Both the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., say they saw huge increases in online engagement in the first few weeks after they closed in March, with interest especially strong for the virtual tours each offers on its website.
The Guggenheim says page views within its searchable database of artwork almost doubled from March 13 through the end of June compared with the preceding year, while page views on its blogs increased 72%.
While many museums report that their online traffic has slowed since the early weeks of the shutdowns, it remains higher than pre-Covid, according to Mr. Cherry, the museum consultant. As cultural institutions welcome the public back, the challenge will be to keep those online visitors interested over the long haul and to sort out the relationship between the physical and virtual museum.
That is a work in progress, says the Modern’s Mr. Lowry. But “we won’t go backward,” he says. “We won’t revert to what we were before.”
The Met’s Mr. Hollein says that when museums reopen, they will be welcoming back people who have become more digitally savvy over the past few months. “They will have learned how to communicate virtually, how to access information and how to experience things without being there,” he says. Going forward, he believes museums will measure the success of their missions not just by the number of visitors coming through their doors and how much revenue they generate, but by data analytics—“tracking demographics, how long someone stays on a site, where they are accessing the website from, what type of information they are looking for on the site.”
So far, few if any museums have created new business models based on digital content, but some are exploring the idea, insiders say.
“We definitely have started to talk about this,” says Jerry Wise, chief financial officer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which is located on a campus that also includes a nature preserve and formal gardens. “Is there a consumer landscape that this educational information can target and deliver? Are there enough people who want this? Will it be sustainable? This is all so new, but we are having these conversations here, and people at other museums are having them, too.”
For now, though, museums are moving cautiously, assuming that their principal job is still to get people through the doors of the physical museum.
“There has been a longstanding debate within the museum field over whether virtual visitors are equivalent to actual visitors to the physical museum, and the answer is that they aren’t equivalent,” says Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. People coming to the physical museum purchase admissions, perhaps memberships; they may eat something at the cafe or buy something from the gift shop. The “masses online want free content,” he says. “Once they reach a paywall, they’re gone.”
Many museum directors see the physical and the virtual museum as parallel, not competing, entities, believing that the general public will continue to want to visit these institutions even if the volume of online content grows.
“Museums are social spaces with a mission,” Mr. Lowry says. “Artworks exist in a space with other people,” suggesting that those who look at art want other people around them during the experience. Social media, he says, is “an effective way to create community. You get a conversation going.”
SOURCE : THE WALL STREET JOURNAL