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How Museums Went Digital in Response to COVID-19

Sep 30, 2020 • 10 min read
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      The Louvre was one of the first to close in 2020. The largest museum in the world—one that’s survived war, fires, floods, and a Beyonce and Jay-Z video—closed March 1. “Museum staff met to discuss the health situation and the COVID-19 prevention measures taken by the museum following instructions from the competent authorities,” officials said in a statement to CNN

      From there, it was only a matter of time before the biggest names in art, including the MET, Getty, Uffizi, Smithsonian, Prado, and more, closed their doors. 90% of the museums around the world—more than 85,000 of them—closed in March due to the COVID-19 concerns.

      Of those, an estimated 13% may never reopen, according to UNESCO and the International Council of Museums. In the US alone, arts and museum closures have cost nearly $4.5 billion by early April. 

      These losses are devastating to museums, which are often nonprofits. But if there’s one community that knows a thing or two about resilience, it’s the art industry. In the face of closures and the COVID-19 panic, museums did what they do best: they got creative.

      How Museums Pivoted to Digital

      Every industry coped with sudden “temporary” closures differently, and museums are no exception. By embracing digital transformation and the possibilities that online mediums could bring to the art world, museums provided hope and entertainment during the first few months of the pandemic.

      Here are 3 ways museums digitally transformed their operations that any small business can emulate:

      1. Going Digital First

      Google Street View didn’t just map city and town streets. They also walked the halls of every major museum in the world to give you front-row seats to the best artwork humanity has to offer with their Arts & Culture feature. They include images of the works of art but also the “Street View” of what it looks like hanging in the museum—and for some artworks, an augmented reality view that projects the artwork onto a wall or screen in front of you.

      More than ever, museums should invest in combining their real-life experiences with AR and VR to digitally showcase their offerings.

      “Online exhibitions can do things that brick-and-mortar exhibitions can’t,” Lucas Zwirner, head of content at David Zwirner Gallery, told The Guardian. “They can embed videos, longer excerpts of art-historically relevant material, and artist-created content.”

      Is this a replacement for going to a museum? No. But by giving people access to art from everywhere from the MOMA to the Tate, they’re preserving culture that matters—and for some people, showing them a place they’ll never be able to see in-person otherwise.

      “Our hope for these online exhibitions is to use the voices of our dealers and curatorial team to create multi-media environments that really invoke an artist and the context in which they were making their work,” Marc Glimcher, CEO of Pace Gallery, told The Guardian. “This is just the beginning of a new era of experiencing art through digital realms.”

      2. Creating Immersive Online Events

      The digital shift includes more engaging experiences and events, too. More than 70% of European museums increased their online presences with virtual tours and events, according to the Network of European Museum Organizations COVID-19 report.

      Many museums had already been experimenting with immersive hybrid experiences, like AR-powered tours that peeled back layers of history or put you in the same room as famous historical figures. But now, many museums are taking their tours virtual, either in self-guided “tours” like these from the Louvre or livestreams from curators and docents talking about specific artworks.

      And people are joining. More than 40% of European museums saw an increase in online traffic due to virtual events. The Palace Museum in Beijing made headlines after broadcasting a so-called “cloud tour” of the Forbidden City, which garnered more than 10 million views. Or take a walk through the MET, which reported a 4,106% growth in streaming viewership, with YouTube video views up 150%.

      And some museums are monetizing these tours, offering exclusive access to curators and experts that facilitate discussion. If you’d like to join a virtual 60-minute group tour of the MET, for example, it’ll put you back $300.

      3. Providing Community Outreach Through Social Media

      While museum-goers are stuck at home, social media is where art lovers can learn and discuss their favorite works. “Before Covid-19, the digital space was almost always treated as an afterthought for expanding an audience beyond the reach of physical spaces,” JiaJia Fei, Digital Consulting Director at the Jewish Museum in New York, told The Guardian. “It’s a crash course in digital marketing.”

      Museums around the world joined 2 major hashtags, #MuseumFromHome and #MuseumMomentofZen. Started by the Museum of the City of New York, #MuseumMomentofZen was meant to add a bit of calm to social feeds blanketed in panic and politics. With 25,000 likes, museums transformed Twitter and Instagram feeds into virtual art galleries, at least for a short period of time.

      View this post on Instagram

      Join us for a #MuseumMomentofZen at 11 a.m. PT on Monday, March 16 when we livestream Yayoi Kusama’s The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away on Instagram Stories. For the first time, you’ll be able to see what it’s like to be in this Infinity Mirrored Room for longer than 45 seconds. We may be temporarily closed, but you can still enjoy our art even when you’re not here 😌 #TheBroadFromHome Stay connected and be among the first to know when we’ll reopen by subscribing to our newsletter at the link in bio. ___ Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013. Wood, metal, glass mirrors, plastic, acrylic panel, rubber, LED lighting system, acrylic balls, and water. The Broad Art Foundation. © Yayoi Kusama. Video by @tony.ung

      A post shared by The Broad (@thebroadmuseum) on

      Beyond specific campaigns, though, some museums like the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago injected some much-needed levity and cuteness (with what else but adorable, inquisitive penguins!).

      And other hilarious efforts, like this one at the Field Museum:

      Creativity Pays Off for Museums

      Museums feel more culturally relevant than ever, and part of that is the result of their digital efforts. While some museums begin to reopen, it’s clear there’s no going back.

      “Museums play a fundamental role in the resilience of societies,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in a press release. “We must work to promote access to culture for everyone.” 

      Whether you’re a clothing boutique or a mom-and-pop insurance provider, getting a little creative with your marketing and offers can go a long way. Experiment with what digital transformation can do for your business, from adding a little humor to your social media to taking your events and offerings online.

      About the author
      Kayla Voigt

      Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.

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