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Is the future of museums online and what might a virtual museum look like?

I regularly work with museums to improve their use of technology to open up their collections, attract more visitors and build better relationships and the discussion usually turns to the impact of technology on museum content. How can a museum’s online content contribute to the wider aims of the museum and how the online museum content can fit within the broader museum definition. We normally end up asking more questions than we answer. Can a museum ever be solely online? Can online content improve conservation efforts? Is a visit to an online museums ever an acceptable replacement for physical visit?

When we get into the detail of the argument surrounding online museums there is always a lot of questions around what ‘really’ constitutes a museum. So to start we need to ask the biggest question of all – “how do you define a museum?” and, as you would expect, the more people you ask the more complex and diverse the answers.

Is an online museum really a museum?

For the Collins dictionary the definition is short and sweet “A museum is a building where a large number of interesting and valuable objects, such as works of art or historical items, are kept, studied, and displayed to the public.”

Whereas the UK Museums Association take a slightly more precise view and defines a museum under these criteria “’Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society. This definition includes art galleries with collections of works of art, as well as museums with historical collections of objects.”

You may think there isn’t much difference between the two definitions but there is one vital difference that, for me, gets to the heart of it. “A museum is a building” the dictionary proclaims but yet there are many institutions of learning, collections of artefacts and repositories of valuable and interesting objects that don’t require a physical space to define them. If we look at both definitions I am sure we can find numerous examples that fit the criteria but don’t demand a physical space.

As the UK Museums Association says we are looking for “institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible” and one thing that a physical building can sometimes limit is accessibility. An Online museum could actually improve access to the collections the museum is caring for, allowing people to find exhibitions that truly speak to them regardless of location and make links between artefacts held by museums and galleries on opposite sides of the world.

So let’s put down aside our dictionary definition which requires a physical space and let’s look at what can be achieved if we are open to providing online museum content alongside our physical collections or in addition to the location-based services museums offer.

Could online museums help preserve our artefacts better?

The worlds most visited museum in 2018 was the Louvre, Paris which reported 10.2 million visitors, a 25% increase from 2017 and the Physical space the Louvre inhabits is both a help and a hindrance. The Louvre is housed in an iconic building, in the centre of one of Europe’s most visited cities and was featured in a well-documented music video for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s single, Apeshit in which they use the physical space and collection as a backdrop for their contemporary dancers. The physical building contributes massively to its status as most visited museum and it’s hard to believe that an online museum might one day play host to a superstar who boosts their attendance by 25% year on year.

But this high growth in visitor volume may not be sustainable for many physical locations and, whilst many museums are yet to have an issue with too many visitors, there has been a lot of publicity in recent years surrounding high visitor numbers and locations closing to tourists altogether. These high volume tourist locations have been forced to change their ways of operating for the sake of the places and artefacts the space is meant to preserve and safeguard for future generations.

In 2018, Machu Pichu, a UNESCO world heritage site in Peru, brought in a timed ticketing system which it hoped would alleviate the destruction caused by un-controlled visitation levels sometimes twice the recommended UNESCO limit for the historic site. Whilst its impact is still being monitored they are hoping the requirement for a timed ticket will reduce the wear and tear on the historic environment.

For some of the world’s most valuable objects the mere act of display can be too much for it to be considered ethical to display the item at all. Whether its light, humidity or temperature, controlling the environment for some historical artefacts is paramount and not always compatible with the desire to show it to the public.

The V&A, London is home to the Ardabil carpet which is lit for only 10 minutes of each hour to allow visitors to see it without destroying the carpets rich colours and fine textures. The inclusion of the carpet in the online museum collection allows for more time to explore the carpet in close proximity which would never be possible in real life. This limited light for physical visitors combined with its online presence means it can be preserved for future generations and still be enjoyed by visitors today.

As the world’s population continues to grow, we may need to look to alternatives to travelling to one physical location to share our historical collections, artefacts and works of art. If an online museum can allow content to be shared across the world whilst keeping the original cared for in perfect conditions out of sight of the public what impact could that have on other museum activities?

Content for everyone, everywhere

According to the most recent statistics from Internet World Statistics in April 2019, 56.1% of the world’s population has internet access. Whilst some countries lag behind in internet connectivity or limit their residents access through censorship the amount of potential online museum visitors is still over 4.3 billion users.

With the improvement in virtual reality we have seen in the past few years it’s not too far-fetched to think of a future where virtual schools trips are taken by children wearing VR equipment in their classroom, where you could build you own virtual museum and include your favourite artworks and artefacts from various collections in one place and feel like you are walking around the real, or imagined, museum in real time.

But we don’t need to even go that far to see how the online museum could bring content, learning and understanding to virtual visitors. Whether it be Facebook live events with live Q&A, virtual gallery tours hosted by exhibition curators or YouTube interviews with the artists themselves, there are hundreds of ways to connect your museum to your supporters with online content.

In 2013, the National Museum of Australia trialled a virtual museum tour which allowed online visitors to control a robot equipped with camera, speaker and microphone and follow museum guides around the museum at their own pace. This new way of allowing remote visitors to interact with the museum online proved particularly popular with school children spread out all across Australia. These children, from as far away as a 4 hour flight across the country, could partake in a tour of their heritage and cultural artefacts without leaving their classroom. For these school children, who were unlikely to visit the physical museum, using a robot to access the museum proved a big hit and allowed them to participate in a way that would seem incredible to previous generations.

Even without the need for robots, hi-tech gadgets and specialist equipment museums can turn their physical collections into online content with fantastic results. Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, told the Art Newspaper that visitor numbers to a museum’s physical location were only part of the picture when interpreting the impact of a museum on its visitors. Nicholas shared that “Half of our 1.2 million followers on social media and 42% of our five million annual web visits originate from outside the UK; these are people who are unlikely to make a visit but are able to engage with the content we share. (A recent Facebook Live broadcast from our Gainsborough exhibition had 30,000 views, giving many more people access to curatorial expertise than could ever attend a tour in person.)”

When Facebook and other social media platforms make it so easy to share content for your online museum you don’t need to invest in too much new technology but can turn your attention to making the content you share as important as your physical collections. Again if we go back to our “what is a museum?” definition we may feel the purpose of our museum overall may be better met by taking our collections, art and artefacts to where the people are. The message is overwhelming, the people are increasingly online and if you want to reach them you may also need to work on the collections for your online museum. To allow people to access, study and make the most of your artefacts you have a duty to share those items with as many people as you can whether they can visit your physical location or not.

Could a museum ever be fully online?

It may surprise you to know that there are a number of resources online that consider themselves museums and have similar missions to, what most people would consider, a museum. And most importantly they definitely fit our definition put forward by the Museums Association earlier.

Based in Arizona, USA, the Tucson LGBTQ Museum is an online-only museum. Whilst it might not be the most technologically advanced online resource, the museum has been collecting, curating and caring for LGBTQ objects and artefacts since 1967 and today showcases the history of the LGBTQ movement and provides an online space to collate ideas, host exhibitions and provide historical content for research students. If we are looking for a community space where important artefacts are kept, cared for and displayed then this definitely fits the bill without requiring a building.

For a more technologically advanced online museum we can look to the Internet Museum, Sweden which opened in 2014. Designed to celebrate and document the Swedish history of the internet, this completely online resource aims to make the internet a better place whilst curating internet specific historical items and preserving Sweden’s digital heritage. This museum obviously sees itself as a vital resource for our increasingly virtual world and, as it charts the history of probably the single biggest change to the way we live, I can all but guarantee it will become more important as time goes on.

There are also some museums where the physical building was unable to continue but the content was still historically important to the community the museum served. The physical St. George’s Museum closed in the 1950’s with John Ruskin’s collection being removed into various other museum collections or into storage. With the hope of reinstating this collection into a single location, the online museum was created to showcase the original museum’s collection, its contents and historical importance. The online museum project continues the work of its original founder to showcase the collection through images of the physical museum as it was originally curated.

I would like to think that with the advances in technology museums would see an increase in online visitation and, at some point, be able to put in as much effort into their virtual content as they do in to the physical buildings and displays. With the promise of more potential visitors, contributors and supporters for the museum this makes sense but it also gives you unlimited space to curate, create and educate without constraints on visitor volume, accessibility of your building and care considerations for your more delicate items.

If you can imagine that in the near future you could virtually visit any online museum from the comfort of your own home, store your favourite items in your own personal online museum collection or take a curator led tour with friends from across the world, we think you’ll agree that the online museum is soon to be a vital part of the museum eco-system.

About the author – Carly Straughan

Carly Straughan began her career working in tourist attractions on a 3 month contract until she found a “real job” and almost 15 years later she is still here. She now works with museums, arts and heritage, and tourist attractions worldwide and she is a passionate supporter of the industry.

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