14 October 2020

The Wall Street Journal: “Pandemic pushes Museums Deeper into Digital Age”

When museums were forced to shut their physical doors this spring, they simultaneously enhanced their online offerings, creating new ways for the public to experience their collections and spaces virtually. In fact, say insiders and consultants, museums increasingly are behaving almost like media-production companies, seeking to tell the stories behind their collections and exhibits in ways that entertain, as well as educate. Their goal is to continue to connect with traditional audiences—those who regularly visit museums and often become members and donors—while reaching out to new audiences via podcasts, virtual tours, YouTube videos and social-media posts.

While many museums report that their online traffic has slowed since the early weeks of the shutdowns, it remains higher than pre-Covid, according to Mr. Cherry, the museum consultant. As cultural institutions welcome the public back, the challenge will be to keep those online visitors interested over the long haul and to sort out the relationship between the physical and virtual museum.

That is a work in progress, says the Modern’s Mr. Lowry. But “we won’t go backward”, he says. “We won’t revert to what we were before.”

Daniel Grant

Speaking of businesses forced to reinvent themselves as online-first, museums have also been directly impacted by the pandemic because of lockdowns and the drastic reduction of tourism – and have managed to adapt reasonably well, according to this article at least. As with streaming, having direct online access to many museums can be an opportunity for many people, who otherwise could not have afforded the transportation and accommodation costs, or the time to travel there. It is equally an occasion for teachers to augument the dreaded online learning experience with visits to virtual, interactive museums, something that would have been a rarity before.

On the flipside, museums have to figure out ways to promote their new digital content against increasing competition from all the other sources of online entertainment, and to earn enough from these visitors to keep the business running.

A woman led a virtual tour of the Louvre Lens museum
A woman led a virtual tour of the Louvre Lens museum in Lens, France, in May. Photo: Courbe/Zuma Press

Personally I am not sure I would visit a virtual museum, lockdown or no lockdown. While I enjoy the experience during city breaks, for me going to a museum is generally reserved for days when the weather doesn’t permit me to stay outside, walking around city streets or parks – one of the reasons I went to several museums in Amsterdam last year was the pouring rain. While at home I can find lots of other ways to pass the time.

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