Cultural hubs around the world were forced to close their doors in 2020. The spread of COVID-19 hit the museum sector dramatically; that’s not news to anyone. But the crisis also gave institutions the opportunity to think outside the box and use digital solutions to keep creativity and engagement afloat.
In many cases, these initiatives, born out of survival, have changed the way we think about and interact with museums. While we can consider some of the digital pivots to be short-term fixes or interim measures, many represent an acceleration of digital transformations that were already taking place. Others have been more unexpected but no less impactful, diverting the course of museum activities and forcing them to think differently about how they should curate, exhibit, engage and interact in the long-term future.
Of course, the museum sector isn’t alone in this. One report produced in 2020 by cloud communications platform, Twilio, indicated that COVID-19 had advanced digital communications across the business community by 5.3 years in less than six months.
As we look to a post-pandemic world, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on how the challenges presented by Coronavirus have driven the museum sector to innovate, often using widely available tech to stay connected to audiences while access to their buildings is limited.
Google recently reported in its annual review of 2020 that ‘virtual museum tours’ was one of the most searched queries of the past twelve months. Many museums responded to this demand from the public to be able to wander their corridors virtually with new 360 tours or slick web based exhibitions which highlighted key artworks or artists through high resolution imagery.
Others used video to showcase the collections with curators guiding the viewer around their halls. The National Gallery in London recently did this for their Artemisia blockbuster.
The tour which takes the form of a 30 minute film is led by National Gallery Curator, Letizia Treves. Over the course of the tour visitors are guided around what should have been the museums 2020 blockbuster exhibition, with the curator sharing the story of the artist as the camera takes in the artworks.
The focus is very much on the story first and the artworks second, and it gives more of an appreciation for her story than a standard 360 tour could accomplish.
What perhaps makes this tour stand out within the museum sector is that The National Gallery chose to charge for the film, with access for 48 hours costing £8. The tour is however free to members and as museums grapple with new business models this is an interesting monitisation strategy.
Museums Live on Zoom
While The National Gallery tour takes the form of a pre-recorded film, there is an increasing interest from museum in producing live content, much of it aimed at school children.
The Natural History Museum of LA county is one institution offering interactive presentations over video conferencing software Zoom. Schools can arrange for class ‘visits’ with museum educators where they can explore collections and ask questions.
The online format allows the museum to share the expertise of staff who would normally be working behind the scenes on research, with the added benefit that sessions can be recorded and shared on the museums YouTube channel.
Again we have seen museums charging for live streamed zoom sessions with educators, as institutions look for sustainable business models.
Museums Collecting Online
While online collections have long featured on museum websites, the Covid pandemic has highlighted opportunities for museums to add to their collections through online crowdsourcing.
Collecting Covid is one such initiative. With this the Museum of London hopes to add to its collection to enable it to better tell the story of the city during the pandemic.
On their website they outline the aims of the project. ‘Our aim is to reflect the voices and experiences – good and bad – of a broad range of Londoners, as well as changes to the urban environment caused by the capital going into, and emerging from lockdown. We are interested in the tangible and intangible, the extraordinary as well as the everyday.’
One of the most interesting additions to the collection captures the sounds of central London during the capitals lockdown and contrast this with recordings from 1928.
The Museum of London is not alone in rapid response collecting during the Covid pandemic, you can find more examples in this recent article on the subject.
Museums and Games
Games are tools which museums have used for many years, whether that is online Flash based games or Minecraft.
But advances in gaming have provided museums with more opportunities to use these digital platforms during the Covid pandemic, perhaps in part because of the explosion in popularity of titles like Animal Crossing which encourage new ways of collaborating.
Earlier in the year museums including The Met added their collections to Animal Crossing, while Monterey Bay Aquarium used the popular streaming platform Twitch to share the educational and entertaining adventures of their team in the game.
In a recent interview with Minecraft artist Adam Clarke, he suggested that games offered a unique platform for collaboration and creativity at a time ‘when face-to-face interaction has been limited.’
Social Media as Entertainment
Many of the most memorable digital interventions by museums over the past year have been on social media (you can find examples of creativity from museums across several different platforms here).
However the channel which seems to have attracted the most attention this year has undoubtably been TikTok.
The Black Country Living Museum joined the platform in August but was soon attracting millions of views.
Meanwhile in the United States Carnegie Museum of Natural History built its TikTok following with an unusual approach.
The playful nature and popularity of TikTok mean that it is likely to recieve much attention during 2021. You can find more on Museums and TikTok here.
Crisis as motivator
The COVID-19 crisis has been uniquely difficult for everyone. But there is also an opportunity to use the crisis to try new ways of connecting with audiences. None of the examples above are outside the reach of most museums, they use existing tech and tried and tested platforms.
What has made the difference is a willingness to try new things, perhaps made possible by challenging circumstances.
It will be interesting to see how museums take what they have learnt during 2020 and apply it as we move into 2021.