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Livestreaming and museums: making museums truly accessible

Not everyone has the means or opportunity to visit a museum, so should curators bring the exhibit to the viewer?

From social media to video streaming, technology plays an essential role in how we connect with the world around us. We rely on it for work, information and entertainment, and over the past twenty years it has completely revolutionised the way we access and engage with content.

It is therefore no surprise that museums are looking to utilise technology in order to help draw in crowds, enrich their exhibitions, and extend reach. And one of the most effective tools for achieving this aim is undoubtedly livestreaming.

Livestreaming is a medium that allows museums to beam their exhibits and activities to screens around the world, increasing audience engagement with, and recognition of, the museum’s offering. But how can a museum utilise livestreaming in an effective way? And how big of a role can it really play in growing a museum’s impact and achieving success?

How are museums using livestreaming to their advantage?

In recent years, many museums have employed livestreaming in their exhibitions. For example, in 2017, five different versions of Van Gogh’s iconic painting of sunflowers were reunited for the first time via livestreaming.

The five paintings are housed in different museums across the world, but by collaborating on a livestream these museums granted their audiences the ability to view, compare and contrast all the paintings at once in real time.

Each painting was presented by a curator from each of the museums, who had fifteen minutes to explain the significance of their version of the artwork. This is an example of how livestreaming can offer audiences an experience that would otherwise be impossible.  There is no way that they would have been able to compare the five sunflower paintings in real time with the addition of an insightful presentation without the support of technology. While this is just one example of how livestreaming can facilitate collaboration and community in the arts, it provides us with an interesting starting point as we consider where this technique may take us next.

In recent years, some museums have made livestreaming a staple part of their monthly output. Take, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), for instance, which regularly posts livestream videos on its Facebook page. One of its most popular was its 2016 livestream of a conversation between the museum and well-known filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water).

Online audiences were able to post questions for the director in the comments section of the video, which were read out and answered in real time. This gave people across the world the opportunity to interact directly with their creative hero, and enabled the museum to highlight the kind of events it runs to a much larger and more diverse demographic.

The video was watched by 1.2 million people, with 6,000 comments and 16,000 shares. The museum continues to post one livestreaming video a week and asks for feedback from their followers. This helps to forge a deeper relationship with their audience by giving them a sense of ownership over the content the museum goes on to create, based on their online contribution.

When The Getty museum in Los Angeles went live for the first time in 2016, it was a spur of the moment decision; a suggestion by one of the museum’s interns to broadcast their annual college night. The short stream was an unexpected success, reaching 30,000 people across Facebook, and generated nearly 3,000 reactions, comments and shares.

This success inspired the museum to post livestream content more regularly, whether it was to show off their exhibits via gallery tours, post talks with curators and other in-house experts, or to show exclusive behind-the-scenes content.

Through these tactics, the museum’s online audience gets to experience a more intimate and informal look at the inner workings of the museum, and gains a greater knowledge and understanding of their favourite artworks. In turn, The Getty creates a worldwide audience for itself, and helps to dispel the notion that art galleries are elitist, and only open to certain people, by interacting directly with a large and diverse audience.

What are the pros and cons of using livestreaming in a museum?

Livestreaming is an extremely useful tool for museums looking to extend their reach beyond their walls, but it does not come without its challenges.

While livestreaming may temporarily gain a museum a worldwide audience, that does not necessarily mean those viewer numbers will translate into additional footfall. After all, if an event or exhibition is going to be broadcast on a free social media site like Facebook or YouTube, there is less incentive for locals to part with their money for a ticket.

What livestreaming does do – when used successfully – is highlight the valuable work done by the museum. Showing exclusive behind the scenes content (such as restoration work or the process of putting up a new installation) offers online viewers something a physical visit to the museum could not, helping them to appreciate the institution for more than just its contents.

It also needn’t be an expensive process. A smartphone and a social media platform are all it takes to launch a livestream. Videos do not need to be created by someone with plenty of experience in the art of videography, meaning large and small institutions alike can create equally compelling content.

In fact, some of the most popular and effective steams are not of particularly high quality. What they do achieve is sharing a unique value with the audience by showing an informal, human face to an otherwise lofty cultural institution.

For those institutions looking for new ways to generate revenue, livestreaming can also be monetised to help fill the coffers and support future endeavours. Platforms such as YouTube already have revenue generating tools built into them in the form of advertising, of course. And by posting big viewing figures frequently enough, museums may even be able to attract sponsorship deals for exhibitions, lectures, seminars and tutorials.

For those looking to take more complete control of their financial model, there’s even the potential for placing streamed content behind a pay-wall and charging small, regular sums of money to members who wish to follow regular video and podcasts.

Increased choice is rarely a bad thing

While it’s possible to argue that livestreaming is counterproductive when it comes to driving footfall, the common consensus today is that when it comes to creating content – either physical or digital – the key lies in offering choice. While we all love to see the halls of museums and art galleries filled with people, we must also accept that people spend more time in front of their devices than ever before. In fact, this has become the default way to be entertained and to learn.

Working with rather than against this tide of change can help to ensure that museums remain relevant and accessible as we head into the future.

Interested in joining us to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing museums over the coming years? Explore our events calendar here for all our latest conferences.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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