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Can Museums Take Their Blockbusters Online?

Many museums have started to offer virtual tours of their collections during the global health crisis which has forced the closure of most galleries and institutions at some point. In London, where there have been multiple lockdowns and enforced museum closures, the majority of institutions have upped their online presence so that members of the public have been able to continue to visit from the comfort of their own homes. Since a fair proportion of the capital’s museums and galleries are free to enter, many of these virtual tours have been provided without cost. A good example is the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing tour.

However, when it comes to ticketed events that visitors would have had to pay for, the story is not so simple. By way of a comparable example, the National Gallery’s Artemisia show was set to be a long-running blockbuster after it first opened between lockdowns in October. Indeed, many fans of the 17th-century female artist’s works were willing to go to great lengths to attend the first major exhibition devoted to Artemisia ever to be staged in the UK. Even with travel restrictions in place and the fear of attending an indoor site in the middle of London, the show was a huge success and this looked set to continue until its final days in late January.

Blockbuster Shows

However, with the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus in the south-east of England and soaring infection rates in the capital, all museums were forced to close their doors once more. At this point, the Artemisia show’s organisers had to make a decision as to how the artworks could continue to be enjoyed. When a UK-wide lockdown was imposed by the government from November 5th, the decision was made to move the exhibition online and, what’s more, to charge for it.

Although the standard admission price for the show was set at £20 by the National Gallery – a fee it intends charging visitors as soon as the currently enforced restrictions are lifted – a virtual tour of the exhibition costs just £8. It should be noted that the Artemisia exhibition is free to members of the gallery. That said, anyone in the world is now able to book their virtual ticket and to watch a high definition video of the five-star rated show. To add context to the artworks that are displayed in the video, the exhibition’s curator, Letizia Treves, provides a commentary about each piece along with some historical information.

Art Expertise

Treves holds the post of the James and Sarah Sassoon curator of later Italian, Spanish and French 17th-century paintings at the gallery. Considered by many as a world authority on Italian paintings, Treves has previously worked as a senior director at one of London’s best-known auction houses and she has also curated several world-class exhibitions, notably Beyond Caravaggio which was also a big hit.

In the 30-minute video, Treves provides virtual visitors with a walkthrough of what they would have seen in the gallery without the crowds, of course. She stops at each of the brightly lit works of arts to tell tales from the painter’s life. The camera work provides an overall picture of each painting as well as some of the finer detail so that Artemisia’s brushwork can be brought to the fore by zooming in close.

Of course, since the very beginning of the crisis, the number of digital tours available from museums has grown and grown. Such online offerings have ranged from short clips drawn from a collection that were broadcast via social media websites to much more immersive and interactive experiences. In this sense, what the National Gallery has done is not so remarkable. The fact that it has chosen to charge for its virtual tour does make it stand out, however. Indeed, once virtual visitors have paid their fee, they can watch the tour several times if they wish. However, they will not enjoy continued access to the filmed content – it remains available to them for just 48 hours after they have registered for their virtual ticket.

Chris Michaels, the National Gallery’s digital director, said that a filmed tour can never substitute for an in-person experience of being in the same room as the works of art but that at least it was a way of letting audiences gain access to the show. He also admitted that in the wider economic context that meant many institutions in the UK were making their staff members redundant, charging for the online version of the show was a simple priority for the gallery since it meant generating some form of income.

In fact, the National Gallery is not alone in this approach. Shortly after the gallery started charging for its digitised tour, the Design Museum launched what it billed as a virtual experience to would-be visitors. Located in Kensington in West London, the Design Museum shifted its Designs of the Year exhibition online. Free to its membership, the show, which features the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre, Shiva Feshareki and Alan Oldham among others costs £7. Once virtual ticket holders have paid their fee, they can watch a filmed version of the exhibition as many times as they like until March.

Commercial Approaches

It is worth noting that the reduced entrance numbers that both the National Gallery and the Design Museum have had to impose even when they have been allowed to open has meant their shows have been no less popular than usual. Both of the aforementioned exhibitions would have been sold-out events for their respective durations. Despite some government funding for the arts, which includes a proportion for museums and galleries, ministers have advised institutions to take a commercial approach. Oliver Dowden, the UK’s culture minister said in the summer that he would not make the case for any further financial support for the sector if institutions did not take commercially-minded decisions.

Elsewhere, museums have experimented with similar approaches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for example, has run several digital tours. Nevertheless, these have tended to be on a smaller scale than that which the National Gallery and the Design Museum have attempted. However, both the Louvre, in Paris, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent have ruled out charging for online versions of their shows, stating that they are a pale imitation of in-person visits. As yet, neither of the London-based institutions have revealed how successful the online versions of their shows have been.

Interested in how museums have responded to Covid? We’ll be hearing how museums around the role have pivoted to digital during the pandemic at the MuseumNext Digital Summit. Find out more about the event and get your tickets here.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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