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Is VR-on-demand a viable option for museums diving into the paid content space?

Subscription services are hardly a new idea, nor are they entirely new to the museum sector. But in a post-Covid climate, a growing number of institutions must surely be looking at the potential for digital expansion to add a valuable revenue stream and support the quest for greater accessibility.

Paying a regular fee for access to high quality content is, of course, a model used across a range of media platforms today – just ask streaming giants like Netflix, which has amassed a net worth of $30.48 billion as of March 2021. Whether it’s Amazon Prime, Spotify or Playstation Plus, paying to access an extensive library of entertaining and engaging content for a manageable monthly sum is something that consumers have grown to accept.

Streaming is widely hailed as the future of content consumption, and we’re increasingly seeing cultural institutions answering the call with their own paywall offerings. Theatres, in particular, have been using this model for some time. The National Theatre’s “National Theatre At Home” platform and MarqueeTV are some of the most prominent examples.

There is little doubt that gated content and OTT solutions are on their way, with paid virtual experiences warranting further exploration by museums over the coming years – particularly as they drive forward with accessibility initiatives that extend beyond the boundaries of their physical premises. The Birmingham Museum, for example, has already trialled this with the launch of its digital subscription service ‘Birmingham Museum On Demand’ in February. This provides a source of digital content that allows audience members to learn about the discover the museum’s collections and work for £20 per month.

Similarly, the Design Museum in London now offers exclusive content libraries for those with paid memberships alongside its free programme of digital events.

Interestingly, a recent Cultural Restart’s 2021 report revealed that 60% of visitors taking part in a digital museum experience expressed interest in buying tickets for future online events, while 15% said they would be likely to invest in a monthly subscription.

VR experiences must go above and beyond in order to justify a paywall

As museums begin to plan for a digital future, many consider Virtual Reality (VR) to be the perfect candidate for paywalled museum content – in part because it already appeals to a dedicated niche of museum fans. Those passionate enough to enjoy virtual museum content remotely are also those who would be most likely to invest in both the hardware and the monthly premium for high-quality, exclusive content.

They key word here, however, is “premium”. VR experiences must go above and beyond to justify a paywall, as it’s not unusual for new subscription launches to be met with initial backlash. When YouTube launched YouTube Premium as an elite paid platform back in 2019, entertainment sites like The Verge proclaimed that the golden age of the site was over.

While interpretations may differ as to whether this claim has actually come true in relation to Google’s video platform, it does pose an interesting question that we should take with more than a pinch of salt. Indeed, this challenge is not lost on many of the leading voices in the museum space. As the Tate’s Director of Digital, Hilary Knight explained in a recent interview with MuseumNext:

“One thing I’m adamant about, though, is that if digital content and online experiences are utilised to supplement income, they must feel authentic and add genuine value. Otherwise they won’t work.”

Thankfully, VR is more than capable of wowing its viewers. Some of the most pioneering museum exhibitions of recent years have utilised virtual technology to great effect. Back in 2018, the Natural History Museum partnered with Sky to develop an interactive VR experience titled Hold the World. The exhibition transported users inside the museum and put them face to face with Sir David Attenborough, who talks through some of the museum’s most prized artefacts while allowing users to handle them.

This is a prime example of what VR can achieve: bringing users closer to arts and culture to give them a sense that they are truly present within an experience. High calibre content such as this could well justify the introduction of a paywall.

While museums will most likely experiment with a range of models and delivery formats in the years to come, one thing is for sure: the growth in digital adoption has engaged the public with institutions in the online space like never before. And there is now an opportunity to consolidate that for the future. As Hilary Knight suggests:

“Digital enables us to build relationships with audiences over a longer period of time – with the end result often being an in-person visit further down the chain.”

Does VR hold the key to a digital subscription service for museums? Or should institutions instead be looking to improve their over-the-top media services without restrictions and for the inclusivity of all? We discuss this and more at the MuseumNext XR Summit. This is available on-demand here.

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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