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Has Covid-19 changed what we value and how we measure it in the museum sector?

For decades museums have judged visitor numbers to be the primary metric to define success in any given year.  More footfall means opportunities to expand revenue, add cultural value and create the necessary buzz to generate even greater visitor numbers in the future.  But, how do you assess the achievements of the museum sector during a pandemic?  Buildings are closed and tourism is all but dead.  Footfall has not just dropped, it’s fallen off a cliff.

Moving forward, the current global outlook suggests we may need to revisit how we judge success across the global museum network.  Particularly at a time when the sector is working hard to seize on opportunities and engage an increasingly home-based audience.

Digital audiences

In 2020, the famed Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam recorded its lowest ever visitor numbers.  Closed for much of the year due to local lockdown restrictions, the national museum of the Netherlands recorded just 675,000 visitors – down 2 million on 2019.  It’s a story echoed by museums across the world as the sector shut its doors to help limit Covid-19 infections from Spring 2020.

Interestingly for the Rijksmuseum, however, the past year has not been without its successes.  Whilst visitor numbers were lacking, the museums digital presence soared – adding 23% more followers to its social media channels and reaching an all-time high of 1.4 million followers.  The museum’s website also saw 5.5 million unique visitors, including 2.2 million to its virtual collection, Rijkstudio.

Rijks Studio website by the Rijksmuseum

The experiences of Rijksmuseum over the past 12 months reflects the quandary now facing the sector.  Should physical visitors be the only measure of success going forward. Or do the online metrics warrant a bigger role in the annual reporting – not just in a year defined by restrictions on movement but in the long-term future. After all, many institutions have invested enough time and resources in developing their digital platforms, channels and communities, so why shouldn’t those visitors carry the same weight as in-person footfall

On the one hand, increased digital engagement could be seen as a consequence of the pandemic and not necessarily sustainable at the same levels for the longer-term.  On the other, now is the time to capture new online audiences and create platforms to communicate work, future exhibitions and collections. Whether digital content is central to the core strategy of the museum or complementary to its work, it cannot be denied that the public appetite for arts and culture through their device or PC is growing almost as fast as museums can innovate ways to deliver it.

Visitors will return in time. But for now, home-based access is essential for millions across the world.  The current lockdown could be a defining moment for the sector.  A version of the e-commerce boom similar to that which has transformed retail and continues to show signs of growth in 2021. However, rather than sales as a metric, ease of access and increased engagement with arts and culture may be the goal – at least for those not already eyeing a commercial model for their content.

Content-driven benchmarking

Creating content, distributing content and encouraging the right audiences to interact with that content is the goal of many a modern media business. Museums, however, are as much about the physical and sensory experience of visiting an exhibition as they are about the collections they manage behind closed doors.  It is the digital value of those collections, however, that offer the key to a broadening of the horizons when it comes to redefining benchmarks of success.

Above: Netflix original series Bridgerton

Above: Netflix original series Bridgerton

If the goal of an e-commerce led digital strategy is to achieve a sale, the goal of a museum should be to encourage digital dwell time – pages visited, time on site and clicks registered. Whether complementary to museum activities, a key focus of museum output or a marketing tool to boost other areas of the museum – digital growth can be a crucial metric of performance and an indicator of which collections or exhibits are resonating with audiences online.

Streaming giant Netflix is able to judge financial success on the growth of its subscriber base.  However, real success is actually measured by the frequency of streamed programmes its audience base consumes on a daily basis.  This is equally true of the museum sector.  Whilst the success of a museum’s output, brand and exhibition quality can be judged by footfall, the value of its collections and associated content can be judged by frequency of engagement by its digital audience.  Get the strategy right and repeat engagement and growth in the digital audience can reap huge benefits to a sector that relies on the public to justify funding from available funds.

Funding the future – justifying relevance

Increased engagement from an online audience can offer myriad of benefits to the museum sector beyond the obvious marketing advantages.  From a brand awareness point of view, extending the digital reach of a museum justifies relevance to audiences beyond geographical borders.  Without visitor numbers to fall back on, it can also help craft a case to funding bodies to illustrate how a museum is valued by its audience.  This justification could prove critical if prolonged closures continue into the latter half of 2021.  When considered against an uncertain future for public funding for arts and culture in the wake of the pandemic, justifying value through digital reach could be one of the few performance indicator available for museums in the absence of ticket sales or footfall.

And what of privately run, for-profit museums and galleries? How can they adapt their digital model to drive revenue and demonstrate success to the board? Should museums follow the example of Netflix, for example, and use their collections as content to hook in audiences?  The idea of a museum as a modern media business does have its advantages from a revenue point of view but fails to account for the important aspect that sets the sector apart.

The unparalleled value of the sensory experience of actually visiting a museum and certainly never to be replicated online.

Perhaps we won’t truly know where we’re going as a sector for some years yet. But monitoring progress, benchmarking performance and exploring new ways of thinking about what it is that institutions are trying to achieve should certainly form part of the conversation in the here and now.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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