6th March 2020

How can the culture sector engage audiences in the face of Coronavirus?

Martijn van der Heijden
Head of Strategy
Mona Lisa

Last weekend, the Louvre staff closed the doors for three days out of fear some of their 10.2 million yearly visitors would spread the Coronavirus. British visitor attractions we work with here at Deeson are expecting that not just Chinese will stay at home this season, and have started adjusting their budgets accordingly. The dreaded example is Italy, where the eternal queues for the Vatican museums have vanished and audiences are now banned from professional sports events.

Besides the potentially severe financial implications, it also means less people will get to know the treasures of these museums, while reaching a wide audience is usually the first objective in any mission statement we read. 

So, is there a digital alternative if Coronavirus continues to affect visitor numbers?  

How good is the digital experience?

For an online visit, people don’t need to travel, form crowds and have physical contact. That has, of course, been the case for over twenty years already, since the internet has been open to the public. 

But, this might be the moment to really establish how the online experience weighs up against the physical one. And see what quick wins there are.

Based on my experience working with organisations in the culture and visitor attraction sector, I look at two key aspects: 

  • The content: What are the unique things you offer? For a museum these might be artworks and other objects, for a theatre it’s performances and for a zoo it’s animals. 
  • The story: What are the narratives you tell? Whether that’s the message and plot of a play, or the theme of your exhibition? 

Offering the content online 

On 25 February the Smithsonian launched Open Access, where anyone can download, share and reuse millions of the Smithsonian’s images, 3D objects and data. In two weeks users viewed items 10,924,323 times and downloaded them 176,874 times. Not bad, considering the average number of physical visits in 2019 for two weeks was 850,000.

This radical sharing of collections online, with downloadable, high-resolution images, is becoming the new standard for museums. It also adds something to the physical visitor experience; just try zooming in that much in front of a painting!

What we’ve learnt is that these projects take time though. Collection systems need to connect with APIs and search engines, data needs to be checked and the business case has to be made for downloadable images vs selling image licenses.

Something quicker is the inspiring way the New York Public Library published their books as Instagram stories. The ‘cover’ was a custom made animation, after that you can read the entire text of a book.

The NYPL published The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe as a story on Instagram

The NYPL published The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe as a story on Instagram.

Digital storytelling

Humans need stories. This is why museums don’t just offer their objects in a room but create exhibitions. 

A good exhibition tells a story with a curated set of objects - sometimes loans - supporting texts and video and interactive elements. It’s this context that engages people and lets them appreciate the content fully.

Bringing this to digital has been much harder. Every once in a while, there are museums that digitise exhibitions as online 3D experience. The result for me personally has always been a disappointment: most of the time and energy goes into manoeuvring around the space, leaving little time for the art let alone the overall message.

Here are some first ideas of digital storytelling formats you might implement quite quickly:

  • Present an exhibition in a series of blog posts. If you have a modern, flexible, modular implementation of a platform like Drupal, you can easily combine texts, image and videos. Like we did for Imperial War Museums. Stuck for now with an old CMS? There are several content publishing platforms around that you can integrate as a subdomain, like Wordpress.com and Medium.com. If you create a series of blogs, you can offer the option to subscribe to alerts when new instalments are published.
  • Start live streaming on platforms like YouTube, Facebook or Instagram with little more than a smartphone. You can think of taking different tours or showing how things work backstage. MuseumNext recently highlighted how some museums are doing this even weekly.
  • With a little more investment in recording and editing tools and capabilities, you could create a podcast of interviews, with internal and external experts.
Imperial War Museum Website

Imperial War Museums sharing its stories online.

But... where’s the money?

Usually, the case for digital is made with the assumption that digital presence leads to physical footfall. That may still be the case once the Corona danger has subsided - hopefully soon. The Rijksmuseum definitely didn’t experience a drop in visitors after bringing their collection online in 2014 -  last year their numbers were up with 400.000 visitors. 

Still, here are some ideas to monetise your content online:

  • If you have content that can be video, offer it on a streaming platform like Digital Theatre. 
  • Turn your internal knowledge into online education. The Victoria & Albert Museum already offers physical courses, workshops and tours in its V&A Academy, why not take them online for a much larger audience?
  • Choose stories that are linked to products in the online store, or objects that can be printed on demand.  If zoos, historical places and museums let their physical visitors exit through the shop, why not online?

Let’s use our creativity! 

Museums, theatres, zoos and gardens cannot directly transport their physical visitor experience to the web. 

Some digitising programs take a lot of time and specialised expertise as well, but, with some creativity and using easily available tools and (social) platforms, there are many things possible from today - if you want. 

Having a story and authority always trumps production value. Let’s use some space on the web not just for virus updates, but also for culture.