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Don’t forget to share: a plea for unabashed openness in times of crisis

A crisis. A pause. A reimagining of what we are, what we need to stand for, who we are doing all of this for… This year is challenging many of us, and has forced us to think of possible new avenues for the future. One such avenue lies in the digital museum. During weeks or months of shutdown, we’ve turned more than ever to the digital to keep our collections accessible and keep in touch with each other and with our audiences. Its immense potential to provide new ways of access can’t be understated. An yet I feel a potential danger in our being asked to take these digital strides over enthusiastically and, more importantly, virtually blind. For how much do we really know of the impact, effects, audience responses or cost/benefits of the myriad digital initiatives created just this last year?

It’s not just COVID

The increased focus on digital mediation has been some time coming and isn’t, of course, simply linked to the COVID-19 crisis. We’ve been integrating digital presentations and public programmes into our core operations for years, interacting more directly with our audiences and increasing accessibility to our collections. More recently, the financial feasibility of the blockbuster model  has come under scrutiny and even large players such as the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum are voicing their concern that the influx of (international) tourists is stretching the limits of their galleries. Both concerns urge us to re-examine how we intend to reach our audiences in the future and to rethink our role as physical spaces. Concerns of overpopulated galleries may seem quaint today, as we’ve gotten used to our square meter of solitude, but once travel returns to or surpasses pre-2020 levels (because, knowing humanity, that isn’t stopping voluntarily) how will we wield this double-edged sword? What with all those unable to make the trip to our sites? And how can new, non-physical ways of engagement and new business model fit into this?

Taking the crisis head-on

This year’s crisis has seen us (re)turning to local communities as well as attempting to prepare for the next time the world grinds to a halt and our sites become inaccessible once again. From digital classrooms to full-on virtual tours, from livestreams to downloadable do-it-at-home workshops, we’ve reached out to and interacted with our audiences in just about any way possible this year. For many museums this is the first time these methods are being deployed on this scale. 

Across the web we’re being bombarded with examples to help the less digitally inclined among us to see possible futures. Our stakeholders expect us to rebound financially and reach more potential visitors as quickly as possible. And as enthusiastic museum professionals we’re equally eager reconnect with our communities. With an increase of digital visitors of up to 150% during the first months the possibilities were promising the say the least. The Network of Museum Organisations (NEMO) ‘Survey on the impact of the COVID-19 situation on museums in Europe ‘ report, based on user behavior between 24 March and 30 April 2020, urges stakeholders to start shifting funding and expertise more to the digital, explicit in its optimism that the future will to a large extent be digital.  And so we leap forward.

Not to be a downer, but…

However, are we truly aware of the implications of such a leap? Or do we run the risk that over-optimism, fired by sheer necessity, has us forget the more sceptical notes that should accompany any supposed major shift in the field? Because believing that ‘the digital museum will be the way of the future’ is not an unladen statement.

In the midst of our digital efforts we might forget that digital isn’t neutral. Part of our collections shouldn’t be made accessible online without extensive partnerships with the communities that created them. Nor should we assume that all audiences have equal access to what we’re offering, especially when imaging e.g. virtual or highly interactive offers requiring specific hard- and software.

More immediately still there are questions of feasibility and cost vs benefit. Can we develop the new skills required to do what’s expected of us fast enough? Do we actually know which skills those are? Where should our financial priorities lie? Which digital pathways are the most suitable?
These questions bring to light a significant problem: amid the digital optimism and the wealth of inspiring examples, there’s little factual information to be found regarding actual costs, concrete results, wins and fails, or lessons learnt. Going by what we ourselves send out into the world, it seems as though we’re all convinced that digital, any kind of digital, is an automatic win even though we back this up with little to no data.

No time for holding back

This holding back of sensitive data isn’t new, of course, nor is it necessarily a major problem. Much of our audience work and marketing has always built on iterative experimentation, talking to our audiences and adjusting our offers accordingly. We’re also more outspoken behind closed doors. We seek help where we can and occasionally collaborate with research centres – whose results, unfortunately, may themselves become locked behind the paywalls of academia. We understand that open communication on projects that missed their mark or on the nitty gritty of internal finances isn’t always easy.

But today’s context has changed. With reduced funds many can’t afford a failed experiment, while simultaneously more immediate results are being expected of us than ever before. Financial stress may also push us into greater competition within the sector. In such a scenario, it becomes an issue when the web is full of high-end digital best practices that entice but limited data to objectify decision and policy making. What funds we have left might easily be lost…

Examples from the arts already show how divergent the results of new digital efforts might actually be. Some programmes are a roaring success; while others barely reach an audience despite significant finances being poured into them. Yet detailed information on digital museum efforts remains largely lacking.

A quick and dirty first assessment of our own efforts

A small case from my own museum illustrates how digital isn’t always digital. From Febuary 1st to March 12th of this year, we organised a large-scale exhibition on Medieval master Jan van Eyck. The show was a big success for us, reaching international headlines and selling over 270.000 tickets (triple our average annual visitor number) before it was forced to close due to Covid-19 after only six weeks. With no hope of reopening, we turned to the digital to keep the show alive. Alongside storytelling on our social channels and educational tools made available for home use via the website, we launched two larger digital initiatives with the help of Visit Flanders, the Flemish tourismboard and main sponsor of the exhibition. The results provide an interesting and quite startling contrast of the role of visitor expectations and context on the impact of digital efforts.

First off, we created a 25 minute video tour with highlights of the exhibition, hosted by one of the curators. The video was posted on Youtube on April 8th and its launch was coupled with an hour-long Q&A on Facebook live. It was the first in a series of 4 videos on the Flemish Masters,  created by Visit Flanders and available on YouTube.

After this, we set to work on a more ambitious project: recreating the 16 exhibition galleries as a 360° tour in 8 languages, with over an hour of audio material for both adults and children, a videowall, extra texts and some 140 hi res reproductions of the pieces on show. This virtual exhibition was launched on June 22nd and aims to keep the show accessible for free as long as lending partners allow.

The launch of the video, in the middle of a national lockdown and three weeks after the exhibition closed its doors, reached international press. It was tooted there as a ‘virtual tour’ even though it wasn’t, to be honest, and the audience response was unseen. The facebook live event boosted followers on the Flemish Masters page by an order of magnitude and since April the video has been viewed over 720.000 times on Youtube.

It’s interesting to note that the three subsequent Flemish Master videos reached far fewer numbers, standing at ca. 440.000, 400.000 and 320.000 views respectively. Clearly the subject of the first video, riding on the massive wave of exhibition marketing, gave it a greater potential than the others. However, it could also suggest that the novelty of the product was already wearing off as lockdown progressed.

The difference with the 360° exhibition couldn’t be more explicit. After 2,5 months this has now reached some 20.000 visitors, with an average visit duration around 5 minutes. Absolute numbers weren’t the primay target when we lanched the tour. Rather we saw it as a way of giving a longer life to the 4 years put into the exhibtion, as well as a way for everyone who missed out to get a feel of the experience. Still, the interest does seem small when compared to the earlier video tour and to the significant resources that went into its creation. Even national press didn’t pick it up…

Had interest in the subject diminshed during the 2,5 months since closure? Did the digital visitor have other things on hand, now that local lockdowns were slowly being lifted? Or was a mere digital copy of an exhibtion simply not engaging enough? We’d need to ask the users directly – in retrospect a brief survey should have been part of the experience – but our assumption is ‘all of the above’. And, which is more of a problem: we basically have no acces to data for similar online exhibitions with which to make any kind of benchmark.

‘A beginning is a very delicate time’

The brief example illustrates the danger of uncritically ‘going digital’ and the need for more openness. No one would never argue against the immense potential of making more of our online presence. We can reach people who would never be able to visit our sites, provide access to collections that never see the light of day and bring the voices and perspectives of our communities into our institutions. We also need to fully investigate the business models and economic potential of our digital offers. Clearly necessity has pushed many of us to take our first steps into an exciting future.

But the danger of unsceptical eagerness shouldn’t be underestimated. Right now, we’re being put under stress and asked to achieve rapid results almost without the time for reflection. And so we cling to positive messaging in hopes that this will help our cause. With the world’s shutting down, the digital was our only option left, yet it doesn’t automatically follow that a digital door, once opened, must become the preferred one. The NEMO report already  concluded that a more rigid analysis of the results of running projects is needed . The same report also showed that while digital visits spiked during the studied timeframe, it was the physical experience with collections that visitors missed most of all.

Our own case proposes some preliminary conclusions. A change in the context of our visitors clearly has major implications on their perception of our offer. The visitors also don’t necessarily want the biggest, most expensive offer. They want to find what’s useful for them at the time, and that’s going to be something very different depending on whether you’re allowed to leave the house or not, whether you’re looking for content, educational materials, recreation or social interaction. And clearly a mere digital reproduction of the physical experience wasn’t what most of our visitors needed right now.

To quote Frank Herberts sci-fi classic Dune: ‘a beginning is a very delicate time’ Now more than ever is a time to look critically at what we’re doing, and to keep each other in the loop. This is the time to let go of competition, and to strengthen the bonds between us. As individual institutions most of us have neither the expertise, time nor funds to lose ourselves in overly optimistic gambles. The future of museums should not be determined by whoever has the most resources, or by whoever stumbles upon a hit. To those of us who do still have the means to experiment on a large scale, I wholeheartedly say: do! And indeed, we can all experiment in our part of the field, no matter how small it may be. But do it in the realisation that our experiments may benefit us all if talked about openly, actively and without restraint. I believe that it’s the only this way for the sector to face the crisis and grow from it without creating even more casualties. Experiment, play, and share!

What have you been doing these past months – or earlier – to reach your audiences on digital platforms? How have you gone about organising this, and what were the financial and logistical costs? And most of all: what worked and what didn’t, what do your results suggest as a way forward and what can we cross out as an interesting but less beneficial experiment? In a world of experiment there are only wins to be had, in gaining new insight. In a world of budget scarcity, it’s more important than ever to have at least some idea of feasibility before we plunge into the deep end, or before we let stakeholders define the best way forward without knowing all the facts.

About the author – Bart Ooghe

Bart Ooghe heads the communications and public programmes team at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (Belgium). With a PhD in archaeology and a career in GLAMs projects, his passion is to encourage sheer enjoyment of cultural heritage and to keep showing its relevance for contemporary audiences. He strives for a healthy dose of scepticism in his work, including a strong fact-based approach to communication strategies.

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