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Digital transformation of museums in the time of Covid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions on cultural institutions and heritage sites induced a significant shift from on-site activities to digital commemoration.

Digital transformation

Sentinel Digital Desk

Achyut Krishna (

The COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions on cultural institutions and heritage sites induced a significant shift from on-site activities to digital commemoration. Deep, penetrating crises of the kind provoked by Covid-19 is resurfacing anxieties in the MUSEUM about the role of technology, the physical experience of culture and the viability of funding models. Forcing adaptation to the exigencies of social distancing, the crisis now accelerates the digitalization of the Museums, overhaul funding models, reduce the dependence on physical presence and create a momentum for scaling up. Meanwhile, the resilience and migration to the digital space of museums took several forms: use of previously digitized resources, enhanced social media presence, new online exhibitions, and special activities.

A Report by UNESCO, titled "Museums around the World in the Face of COVID-19" – states that museums have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 90% of them, or more than 85,000 institutions worldwide, having closed their doors during the crisis. With 65% of them located in North America and Western

Europe, 33% in Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific states, 0.9% in Africa and 0.5% in the Arab States region. It should be noted that just 16 states have more than 1,000 museums, i.e. 8% of the total, while 35% of the states have between 1 and 10 museums, or nomuseums at all.

By March 2021 surveys of the world's top-100 most visited art museums indicated a 77% decrease in visitation numbers compared to the preceding year. Afterwards, most of the museums and archaeological sites were closed to the public for sterilization and disinfection i.e. in China from January, in Egypt from March and so on. Similarly, The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi closed on 14 March, two days before Shripad Naik, Minister for Culture and Tourism, ordered the closure of all "monuments and museums protected by the Archaeological Survey of India across the country, including the Taj Mahal mausoleum in Agra. During the lockdown, 41% of the creative sector closed, and 53% of the events and entertainment management sector experienced 90% of their business cancelled between March and July 2020. The adverse effect on the museum took a worse turn when on 30 March, the painting The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen (1884) by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from the Singer Laren museum while the museum was closed.

It is true that adversity breeds invention. As institutions across the world were forced to close their doors to visitors, attention very quickly turned to find ways of engaging with audiences in an online environment — through an institution's existing websites, social media and video channels and through brand-new and sometimes experimental activities such as webinars, virtual exhibitions and interactive experiences put together very quickly in those first few weeks of lockdown. We saw that the cultural sector has the elasticity to respond to crises in very interesting, creative and effective ways, particularly when their collections are available in digital formats.

MCN (formerly the Museum Computer Network) lists hundreds of virtual tours, exhibitions, e-learning and online collections from around the world that use open access material. Many of these existed pre-pandemic but took on new importance once the audience's attention was forced online due to Pandemic. The fact that the vast of new digitally accessible arts and culture content was provided for free, and without geo-blocking, resulted in increased the public and artists' awareness of the global demand for online access to culture, the limits of copyright law; and the expectations of access to publicly funded creative works. Museums in China under National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) were the first to provide new digital services to the public as appropriate, convenient viable alternatives.

In the response to Covid adversities, many museums turned to their existing social media presences to engage their audience online. Quickly, the Twitter hashtag #MuseumFromHome became particularly popular for museums sharing their content in innovative ways. Inspired by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Instagram accounts such as the Dutch Tussen Kunst & Quarantaine ("between art and quarantine") and Covid Classics, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles sponsored the "Getty Museum Challenge," inviting people to use everyday objects to recreate works of art and share their creations on social media, prompting thousands of submissions. Various institutions were singled out for particular praise by industry analysts for their successful social media content strategy during the shutdown. These included: the Getty Museum for incorporating its works into the popular video game Animal Crossing.

In a survey by Museum Computer Network, information collected from 86 states indicates nearly 600 references to online sites or activities of the listed museums. These have been supplemented by about 200 references from other organizations that have located these activities on the Internet. In this survey, 88% of respondents indicated that their Museum's digital strategy is still in development or still to come – a figure that grew from 37% in 2016 – a 51% increase. 95% of respondents are prioritizing investment in digitizing their collection, up from 49% in 2016. Museum Computer Network believes this is a strategy to lay strong foundations for digital growth.

Meanwhile, many institutions have taken advantage of the digitization and digital communication work done on existing collections i.e. online collections, 360° tours, virtual museums, online publications, digital exhibitions to showcase them more effectively. In this context, the Google Arts & Culture website has been the subject of great interest (especially with traditional media). Many institutions have developed their own projects, often as part of digitization policies developed by public authorities, including, for example, at the Bangabandhu Museum in Bangladesh, the National Costume Museum of Grand Bassam in Côte d'Ivoire and the portal set up by the Department of Antiquities in Jordan.

UNESCO Museums around the World in the Face of COVID-19 rapidly initiated web conferences in the form of webinars or meetings and talks via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and other video conferencing media. Such experimental approaches adopted the culture of commenting, sharing, and creatively remixing content on social media for commemorating the past from a distance. Utilizing user-friendly technology, such as mobile phones and social media applications, many innovative projects experimented with digital aesthetics and formats such as the selfie perspective, video diaries, and influencer videos, and combined them with established approaches to teaching and learning about the significant past.

Google recently reported in its Annual Review of 2020 that 'virtual museum tours' was one of the most searched queries of the past twelve months. Many museums responded to this demand from the public to be able to wander their corridors virtually with new 360 tours or slick web-based exhibitions which highlighted key artworks or artists through high-resolution imagery.

Similarly, The Natural History Museum of LA County started to offer interactive presentations over video-conferencing software Zoom. Schools are given opportunities to arrange virtual 'visits' with museum educators where they can explore collections and ask questions. Similarly, Monterey Bay Aquarium is using the popular streaming platform Twitch to share the educational and entertaining adventures of their team in the game. In a recent interview with Minecraft artist Adam Clarke, he suggested that games offered a unique platform for collaboration and creativity at a time 'when face-to-face interaction has been limited.' Meanwhile, in the United States, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History built its TikTok following with an unusual approach. The Digital channel which seems to have attracted the most attention this year has undoubtedly been TikTok.

The Riga Motor Museum (Latvia) is using a number of digital technologies that allow the visitors to explore the collections in-depth, even if virtually: audio guides, augmented reality experience, video mapping show, workstations, visual projections, multimedia solutions, audio experience, hands-on exhibits and games. This set of multimedia led to positive results, as evidenced by the increased number of visitors and international recognition.

Digital media offer modes of experiencing the museums from afar, thus enabling the users "to grasp some knowledge from the past, whilst retaining their temporal. However, in particular with the shift of digital memory culture toward social media and in the absence of collective forms of on-site commemoration, users themselves become agents of (social media) memory. This engagement, however, enables new forms of collaborative remembering, resembling Hoskins' notion of the "memory of the multitude," as #RememberingFromHome -a popular hashtag during the peak of the shutdown that coincided with Yom HaShoah in Israel suggested. Memorials transformed into #DigitalMemorials, as another popular hashtag suggested. This not only involved uploading digital content and advertising public activities on social media platforms, but museums and memorial sites also tried to offer engaging formats that provided access to the restricted landscapes of memories: #ClosedButOpen.

This implied user engagement in the sense of Landsberg's (2015: 3) "experiential mode of engagement," which on the one hand results from the desire to feel connected to the past, but depends, on the other, on asserting its "alien nature" (p. 10).

Thus, even during an adverse crisis like that of the Covid-19 pandemic, patterns of cultural consumption and production are evolving. At the rate at which technology is advancing, it is inevitable that digital platforms will become more important in the consumption of all cultural forms. This development will certainly have an impact on the "new normal" after the pandemic. The successful format of virtual tours will most likely remain part of several memorials' programs, especially as they offer the opportunity to focus on special interest topics and help to engage distant audiences. Zoom and other digital video communication tools might continue to serve as platforms for meeting survivors even after a successful cure for COVID-19, especially because they provide a solution to the limited mobility of the ageing witnesses.

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