Reimagining the hands-on museum experience in the midst of a pandemic was never likely to be easy. But as Lindsay Genshaft the Manager of Family Programs at the Denver Art Museum explains, the team have adapted quickly to create experiences designed to educate and delight long after Coronavirus has been conquered.
“We are known for our hands-on experiences, interactive games and all kinds of little nooks and crannies that make our museum space exciting for visitors of all ages.”
In a normal year, the Denver Art Museum offers a delightful museum environment for any family looking to enjoy a fun and engaging day out. But with a highly contagious virus spreading through the community, Lindsay Genshaft says that a lot of that had to go out the door – quickly.
“Touchable surfaces and hands-on elements are impossible in a Covid-19 environment, so this was a huge blow to our daily work. We’re also renowned for our live events and sessions with schools and families. At first it was just heart-breaking to have to cancel all of it – including many sessions that had been planned months in advance.
“Not only that but the museum had been undertaking a large renovation project in one of our two main sites. With the arrival of Covid-19, our grand opening in the summer of 2020 was cancelled – a building that was set to offer a fantastic new creativity hub for visitors.
“On a personal level it was sad to lose those daily experiences of seeing kids and their parents interacting in the galleries and witnessing their connections to art. We also had to cancel summer art camps that would have been 10 weeks long.”
As a result of this upheaval and the growing restrictions on movement in Denver, spring 2020 was a difficult period for Lindsay and her colleagues at the museum. Although the institution already had a substantial digital presence and offered online resources to schools in the form of lesson plans, videos and activities, translating the latest exhibition experiences for families into a web-based format was a long way away.
Given the museum’s reputation for providing fun, accessible and tactile in-person experiences, Lindsay says that the move to digital exhibitions presented some unique challenges. But where there is a will, there is a way.
“I have to say that it’s been a rollercoaster of a year and as a department we’ve learned so quickly on the job. We had to pivot to be able to curate content for online users in a home environment and reimagine artworks and artefacts that would usually be experienced in physical form.
“At first that felt like a daunting challenge but it proved to be an exciting and rewarding experience to think about what online and tech could do for us. As we began to work more closely with our digital teams, it became apparent that there were so many avenues that we could go down and ways to collaborate that we had simply not considered before.
“As it turns out, there are also some advantages to digital exhibitions – something that I’m sure many institutions discovered and explored in 2020. Although I will always be passionate about experiencing art in the flesh, in many respects it is possible to get closer and immerse oneself more in a piece of art virtually. By exploring exhibitions online, a web visitor can zoom in to high resolution images and appreciate every fine brushstroke in a way that probably isn’t possible in a busy gallery.”
From colour blending to fine details and easy access to a wealth of contextual material and insight at the click of a button, Lindsay believes it is possible for an online audience to appreciate art at their own pace and in a more personalised way. In particular, being able to provide a wealth of supporting information provides a greater depth of context.
These benefits are certainly evident in Denver Art Museum’s Museum Web Quest: Virtual Visit and More – an online resource for schools and families that focuses on Mexican Modernist art. Lindsay collaborated with Coordinator of School Programs, Erica Richard to create the content.
“Museum Web Quest dives deep into the artists, culture, and history of Mexico during this period. From Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera, our Web Quest resource incorporates videos, articles, and comic book strips, putting engaging information at people’s fingertips to support the works themselves. And we’ve retained that sense of interactivity with ‘Sketch your own artwork’ and ‘Make your own wearable art’ activities.”
2020 has drawn museum teams closer together
While a recurring theme of 2020 was the need for social distancing, it is interesting to learn that working relationships have never been closer among Lindsay’s colleagues. In particular, she believes that her own interaction with digital and IT departments is greater than ever before.
“Coming together and exploring what’s possible online is a very creative process. In order to communicate how we want to present an exhibition online, we’ve had to filter those ideas through the museum’s tech team. Over the course of that exercise they’ve brought their own expertise to bear and helped us to reimagine educational resource ideas in ways that perhaps we couldn’t do before. It’s been a rewarding process, and I think the end results are genuinely engaging for the web visitors.
“We’ve been able to deep dive in a number of different ways. For example, we have been able to explore Mexican culture through food with an entire recipe section. This may not have been featured in a gallery exhibition but because we can layer the information so much more online, this is an element we’ve been able to build into the Web Quest.
“It’s a credit to the patience and application of my colleagues in the digital teams that we’ve been able to produce an online experience that we are all proud of.”
Just as important, says Lindsay, is the valuable data that has been gathered through Web Quest and a new level of insight.
“I’ve gotten to work so closely with the marketing and communications teams. Our understanding of what people are responding to has perhaps never been greater because we’re exhibiting online and have analysis on every interaction that takes place.
“Being able to track every visit, every click, and every download has taught us so much about what interests our audience. This data can help us to refine how we work in the future and improve the way we deliver exhibitions in the future. In many ways, without the pandemic we may not have been able to get here so quickly. That has to be one of the silver linings of this whole period.
What next for digital at the Denver Art Museum?
And what of the future? Will the interim exhibitions of the pandemic remain a stop-gap or is there a role for online beyond Covid-19? Lindsay says that at the Denver Art Museum, there is a clear appetite for developing new offerings in the virtual as well as physical spaces.
“I’m very keen to explore experiences that can function online and in-person. We are keen to develop programs that can work in both mediums.
“To my mind there’s still nothing like seeing a work of art in the flesh. But I don’t believe that providing access to exhibits online detracts from people’s experience or discourages them from visiting a museum. If anything, I believe it builds anticipation more and serves to get people excited, with the ability to learn so much online. I certainly wouldn’t see it as a substitute.
“Out of this 12-month period, I’m more convinced than ever that tech can enhance the museum experience. Often, I think there is the fear that tech will overpower the art but we’ve come to realise that tech can support the art and deepen the experience.
I believe that we’ve got evidence for that now and we must use these digital tools to get the attention of the next generation. Only by reaching out on the platforms and through the devices they love to use are we going to get them engaged enough to come through our doors. The goal is still the same: to make people fall in love with art. But now we’re finding that we can reach out to them in new and effective ways.”