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Virtual Tours Give Chinese Audiences a Taste of Western Museums

Chinese educationalists have been offering a new service to students in their home country that has allowed them to gain virtual access to some of the most famous museums in the West. Over the course of just one weekend, a virtual tour was put on at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence followed by another at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. Later that week, the virtual tour continued with a trip to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington with other hot on its heels. The virtual programme has also taken in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as well as Berlin’s German Historical Museum.

Small Scale and Large Scale

With so many big-name institutions receiving daily online broadcasts, it may be even more surprising to learn that some out-of-the-way and lesser-known museums are also receiving the same treatment. One graduate student at Nottingham Trent University from China, Huangdu Feixue, has made a name for herself live-streaming from Ruddington Village Museum, situated in a rural Nottinghamshire setting. It has seen around 75,000 visitors over the course of the last five decades, but that number has shot up dramatically – in a virtual sense, at least – thanks to the efforts of Ms Feixue. Seen as the embodiment of a rural English museum, it appears to be the sort of thing that many Chinese followers are after. While Feixue toured the converted Victorian schoolhouse, she reportedly gained an online audience that was approaching half a million viewers. Even some of the biggest museums in the United States and Europe could not hope to attract such numbers.

According to Feixue, smaller museums have their own charm which is part of the attraction to her followers in China. “The objects [they house]… are evidence of local people who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago,” she said. The student went on to say that she thought such artefacts were a real example of ‘original British culture’. “Through my live streaming,” she continued, “I try to show that the objects in small museums are just as are historically valuable [as anything else].”

Feixue said that she began streaming her visits to larger institutions before hitting upon the idea of touring smaller ones on behalf of her audience. She visited London’s V&A Museum soon after moving to the UK but found that it proved to be unpopular with the four hundred thousand or so Chinese people who regularly tune in to her streams. Feixue said that she had a similar reaction when she repeated the idea at the British Museum, but her decision to liaise with curators at lesser-known institutions was working out. That said, interest in watching virtual tours of larger museums remains rife in China.

Big Visitor Numbers Without the Crowds

The aforementioned virtual school tour, known as ‘100,000 Kids Touring the World’s Top Ten Museums’ was put on for almost 185,000 Chinese households. It included virtual entry to ten famous museums. Each museum trip came with a two-hour daily tour which was mixed up with animations and videos drawn from other Chinese presenters’ experiences of the institutions concerned. To help schoolchildren understand the sort of exhibits they were being exposed to, a live commentary was supplied by Chinese academics from a studio in Shanghai.

The week-long virtual tour of some of the globe’s best-known museums was run by Aha School, a private education business based in Shanghai. For a relatively modest fee, pupils were able to watch all of the streams. Indeed, the company offered its broadcast feed to several rural classrooms in the country freely as a public service. One teacher from the Akeli School Cenre, located in a rural part of Sichuan, said that her class did not have access to any museums, let alone famous ones. Part of the issue for her children, she claimed, was that travel to some of the biggest cities in China was a problem for them due to the costs involved.

Bridging the Internal Cultural Divide

For some academics, there is a big divide in China between those who can access culture and for those – mostly in rural locations – where the internet is the only way big institutions, like museums and art galleries, can be experienced. For now, projects like the ‘100,000 Kids Touring the World’s Top Ten Museums’ could provide something of an answer to this rural-urban social divide. Pan Lisheng, a former television journalist who headed up the virtual museums tour for Aha School, certainly thinks so. “The key problem is what to get from the internet,” she said, “not access to it in the first place.” As such, more virtual tours of foreign institutions, both large and small, is likely to be a big part of the way Chinese people gain access to western culture for years to come.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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