Moving Digitally: The Future of Museums Post-Pandemic
How is the pandemic affecting museums?
I am pretty sure that by now everyone is aware of how the Covid-19 pandemic has forced museums, galleries, and cultural institutions to close or apply strict safety protocols.
In Europe, Italy was the first country to announce severe national restrictions quickly racking up the highest number Covid-19 cases in the continent. As mobility and travel restrictions were being imposed worldwide, museums around the globe were forced to close – 92% of museums in Europe, to be precise.
A survey of the impact of Covid-19 on museums in Europe was carried out by the Network of European Museum Organisations, by which a report analysed survey responses collected between October and November 2020 from 600 museums in 48 countries – 27 EU member states; 9 member states of the Council of Europe; the USA, Philippines, Malaysia, French Polynesia, Iran. This survey was a follow up from NEMO’s initial report in May 2020, about the first lockdown’s impact.
Major report findings stated that over 70% of museums were closed during the period of the survey and had no set re-opening plans. During the summer months of the pandemic, when museums were allowed to open again, 50% of museums reported a visitors’ drop between 25-75%, and 20% reported a drop of over 75%. More than half of the museums in the survey have reported an income loss between 1,000-30,000 € per week.
This financial and cultural loss has encouraged museums to develop their digital services. 93% of the surveyed institutions have either increased or started implementing online services during the pandemic. There has also been a significant rise in the use of social media, and the introduction of video content to museum websites – and around 50% of the museums have reported that online visits since the reopening of museums have either maintained or increased in number overall.
Entering the online world
In light of the enforced lockdown caused by the pandemic, cultural institutions have had to find new ways to create a safe environment that entices visitors. As museums around the world are beginning to reopen, they are following strict safety protocols. The Museo del Prado, for example, has limited the number of visitors allowed in the museum per time slot. Tickets can only be bought online, social distancing measures must be followed, and masks are compulsory.
However, many museums are unable to reopen, or the number of visitors has been dramatically reduced due to the lack of tourism. According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), an estimated $33 million per day is being lost in museums due to Covid 19-related closures. It was argued in March 2020 by the AAM, that if significant financial assistance is not provided to cultural institutions, especially those in rural communities or small towns, around 30% of museums in the US will not reopen.
During the past year, museums have had to get creative to showcase their collections and exhibitions, and through digital engagement they have managed to create a virtual space where art can be experienced. 2,500 museums and galleries have started offering virtual tours and digitalised their collections on Google Arts and Culture, with institutions such as Tate Britain or The J. Paul Getty Museum providing online exhibitions with commentaries made by curators.
Cultural institutions already collaborated with digital infrastructures pre-pandemic: the British Museum partnered with Google Arts and Culture in 2015 to create a virtual view of the outdoors and inside rooms of the museum. Now the museum has introduced its collections and exhibitions to both the institution’s website and the Google platform.
Virtual reality has also been explored by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2016, The Met’s Digital Department created The Met 360º Project – a series of six short videos created using 360º spherical technology, which immersed viewers into iconic spaces, such as the Temple of Dendur, The Met Breuer, or the Arms and Armor Galleries. This initiative received a Shorty Industry Award for Best Cultural Institution, as it managed to communicate art through a different medium and provide a unique perspective of the museum that the public had not seen before.
In 2017, David Zwirner gallery started launching online viewing rooms of exhibitions, showing images along with details of the works that were for sale. Later in 2018, their digital interest further developed through a podcast where artists and curators partnered up to discuss creative processes. They were one of the first commercial galleries to launch themselves into the use of online platforms.
The digital development of museums has provided a better exposure for the work of these institutions, demonstrating the democratisation of art. For example, high-resolution virtual tours have been created for the Tomb of Pharaoh Ramses VI and shows like the Van Eyck exhibition at the Museum Voor Schone Künsten Gent, where viewers can control their pace and move through the exhibition exploring different pop-up features and specific works.
An unprecedented event happened in the museum world earlier this year, as the Musée du Louvre placed over 480,000 artworks online. 75% of the museum’s collection, ranging from Renaissance paintings to textiles to Egyptian papyrus, is showcased on the museum’s website with images and details for each item. Online visitors can also explore individual rooms through different interactive routes, with information available in French, Spanish, English, and Chinese.
How is art seen through a computer screen?
The current pandemic has forced museums and galleries to catch up with technological innovation and find online solutions to replace on-site viewing experiences. Online art resources have provided a new liberal art-viewing experience, with information now more accessible through a museum’s website. It doesn’t hurt that it’s free, too.
Online collections have been updated to be more interactive and visitor friendly. Online visitors can experience art through high-resolution images, often accompanied by close-up curator or artist commentaries – all without the disturbance of a big crowd trying to see the same artwork. People can now view masterpieces 24/7, from any place in the world; they just need a technological device and Wi-Fi.
But does it compare to the real thing?
In 1935, Walter Benjamin published ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. This essay provided a criticism on mechanical reproductions of art, arguing that they devaluate the unique ‘aura’ of an original artwork. According to Benjamin, there is a mystical characteristic to art that is not experienced as viscerally when seen in photos or videos.
This romantic perspective on art is disputed by a study undertaken by MIT which suggests that, from a neurological understanding, viewing digital representations of artworks is just as stimulating. Digital reproductions dramatically vary between images and virtual reality – we cannot place all online experiences into one box.
But despite all the pros of an online experience, people still prefer going to museums or galleries to view art. Digital exhibitions, while being very important when people are in lockdown, are missing a dialogue between the physical vision and tactile tension. Artworks are generally created to be experienced in reality, to be seen from every possible angle, to be experienced in the intimacy of details. Reproductions are perfectly done nowadays, and there is something very appealing about viewing art from the comfort of your home. But through online collections, the viewing experience is mechanised.
One argument that backs up the development of online museums is the democratisation of culture. Digital collections provide the public with an opportunity to access different exhibitions and have a more direct link to gaining knowledge. However, a digital divide still exists in many communities. Artists in aboriginal centres in Australia feel digitally excluded and are experiencing a disadvantage to this rapid technological development. Many of these Indigenous communities are living in remote areas with low internet connections. It was also noted that 30% of Indigenous artists are over the age of 55, and they often felt less skilled or interested in exposing their art through digital platforms.
What will the future hold?
It might be unclear what the next steps are for museums to follow in the next years. While museum purists are reticent in believing in the potentiality of online platforms for viewing art, we have to start thinking that maybe online art is here to stay – at least for the time coming.
One thing we do know is that the museums of the future will have to educate themselves to be more resourceful and be prepared to flourish in a world that is moving towards technical innovation at a rapid pace. The return to normal life is going to be slow. Even as vaccines are becoming available, travel restrictions will not be lifted as fast as we wished them to be, and tourism won’t be happening at the capacity as it did before.
While there are pros and cons to the virtual experiencing of art, it has allowed museums to maintain a global reach and to share their work with the world. After having developed new online platforms, digital tours, and augmented reality experiences it is very unlikely that institutions will just take a step back and delete all the work that has been done in the past year.
We can agree that viewing art through a computer screen cannot be equal to the physical experiencing of art – or at least I can agree to that (I like going to museums way too much). However, we are at a stage where both perspectives can be combined to improve the overall experience of visitors. The human quality of seeing art cannot be erased but the online accessibility and the opportunities it provides should not be erased.
I cannot speak for all museums around the world and decide what their future will look like, but I am sure technological innovations within museums are here to stay. And I have to say, from my point of view, all positive dissemination of culture and knowledge is welcome.
Words by Eugenia Pacheco Aisa.
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