Museum digital projects during COVID-19: from lockdown connections to digital transformation?

Chiara Zuanni, University of Graz, Austria

Abstract

This paper will discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on museum digital practices. It draws on a project mapping museum digital projects promoted, launched, or developed since March 2020. The dataset was compiled by the research team at the University of Graz and thanks to the contribution of museum professionals worldwide; as of September 2020, it includes over 600 digital initiatives, and a range of social media data. The analysis has first focused on the reception and use of these digital resources: the focus on digital engagement with museums during the pandemic has been complemented by a research on the use of museum digital materials in online learning activities in secondary schools. In parallel, social media datasets have been analysed to observe public attention and creative engagement with cultural heritage during the lockdowns. Finally, the project has begun to analyse the long term impact the pandemic may have on museum digital strategies; on the organisation of digital work and teams in museums; and on the digital skills that emerged as necessary for the future of the sector. The paper will share more information on the background and development of the map; it will share examples of the social media analysis and of the results of work with local schools and museums in order to gain a qualitative understanding of digital engagement with cultural institutions during the pandemic; and it will present the initial and still emerging reflections on the impact of the pandemic on the digital transformation of museums.

Keywords: digital transformation; museums; COVID-19; digital skills; digital engagement

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a traumatic and deep effect on our world, and its impact will be felt for a long time. Museums have been also deeply affected, with subsequent closures, in turn leading to a lack of revenue and a difficult financial situation both for institutions, for their staff, and for freelancers and consultants in the sector; cancellation or rescheduling of events, programmes, and temporary exhibitions; and the difficulties in caring for their collections in a period of lockdowns. Meanwhile, while barred from interacting with the public on site, many museums launched a variety of digital projects, with a ‘turn to digital’ as one of the noticeable shifts imposed by the pandemic on these institutions. 

Discourses about the development of museum strategies, the need for digital literacy skills in the sector, and the organisation of digital teams will become even more central in many institutions following the experiences of the pandemic: indeed, a rethink of a museum digital strategy was considered by 76,6% of museums surveyed in Autumn 2020 by ICOM, with the final report of this survey stating that “What is certain is that the COVID-19 crisis has changed museums’ perception of the digital world forever, highlighting existing issues and accelerating changes that were already in progress” (ICOM 2020b: 18).

This paper focuses on a project aiming to map the digital initiatives launched by museums worldwide. After summarising some of the trends highlighted since early 2020 by multiple reports and reflections, it will focus on the development of such map, and it will present the first insights, while delineating future areas of inquiry.

The Background

UNESCO estimates that due to the pandemic “more than 85,000 museums, or about 90% of the museum institutions around the world, have been affected by temporary closures.” (UNESCO 2020: 13). The growth in digital activities has been noticeable, and many lists of such activities have been prepared by professional organisations, media, and researchers. For example, national ICOM committees have curated online boards with news and resources; MCN has compiled a significant list of pre-existing initiatives (Byrd-McDevitt 2020); the activities of Austrian museums have been compiled on Museumspraxis (Museumspraxis 2020); the monthly newsletters of the National Museum Directors’ Council list significant initiatives and discussions in the UK (e.g. National Museum Directors’ Council 2020). Similarly, there are also various compilation of suggestions for museums, offering an overview of possible approaches (e.g. Google Arts and Culture 2020). In addition, surveys and report have been compiled by various stakeholders: in the US, American for the Arts has been surveying the economic impact on artists, arts organisation, and arts agencies (Americans for the Arts 2020); Culture Track has been surveying the impact of COVID-19 on museums and audiences on a range of themes (Culture Track 2020); Axiell has observed the impact of this period on museums digital transformation (Axiell 2020); ICOM and UNESCO have conducted worldwide surveys, while NEMO has surveyed European organisations.

The digital initiatives developed by museums during the last three months included online exhibitions; downloadable educational material; virtual tours; ad hoc portals, blogs, stories and videos; live streaming of tours, talks, and lectures; educational apps; gaming apps and resources for gaming platforms (e.g. in the videogame Animal Crossing); social media challenges; etc. For example, on social media, #MuseumsFromHome has been one of the most popular hashtags, prompted also by a successful series of videos with interviews and conversations with museum professionals by Sacha Coward and Dan Vo, which ultimately led to the BBC organising a full day dedicated to ‘Culture in Quarantine’. Another successful hashtag has been #museumsunlocked, a campaign organised by Dan Hicks, curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford, each day focusing on a different subject. Other hashtags have been more limited geographically, e.g. #ClosedbutOpen (alongside #ClosedbutActive) in the German speaking area, or limited to specific initiatives (e.g. #museumgames) or museum ‘battles’, e.g. #CreepiestObject in which Yorkshire Museums challenged other museums to share particularly odd and frightening objects from their collections. In parallel, a series of museum challenges drew on the performative and participatory aspects of digital cultures involving people around the world in the task of reproducing artworks with a limited number of domestic objects. The first of such challenges, #tussenkunstenquarantaine, was initiated by Dutch artists, and quickly joined and supported by the Rijksmuseum. Shortly after, the Getty Museum launched the #gettymuseumchallenge, and it has since grown worldwide, using also other hashtags, such as #betweenartandquarantine or #covidclassics. 

There are not yet clear data on the impact of the digital activities undertaken by museums in this period; however, there are some first surveys and insights. For example, in Italy, the Observatory for innovation in cultural heritage has started tracking social media engagement growth (Pirrelli 2020), and the Italian ICOM has already published a first survey (consisting of only five questions) to gauge the digital activities launched by Italian museums (ICOM Italia 2020). Certainly, the richest survey in Europe was launched by NEMO (Network of European Museum Organisations): it run between the 24th March and 30th April 2020 and it collected nearly 1,000 survey responses from 48 countries (mostly European ones, although there were responses also from other continents). The results focused on the economic impact of the lockdown, the increase in digital projects, and crisis awareness measures and responses. The report noted that “4 out of 5 museums have increased their digital services to reach their audiences […] Almost half of the respondents stated that their museum is now providing one or more new online services.” (NEMO 2020a: 2) NEMO has also developed a map, based on Google Maps, with reopening dates of European museums and overviews of digital engagement discussions by country (NEMO 2020b). ICOM conducted a survey, including over 1600 responses from 107 countries (ICOM 2020), while UNESCO assessed the impact of COVID-19 on museums worldwide (UNESCO 2020). Both reports highlighted the economic difficulties, with almost all museums worldwide being closed in April and a significant increase in unemployment; the increase in digital activities (+15% according to ICOM), although unevenly distributed around the world (UNESCO highlights how the digital divide meant that only 5% of museums in the developing world have offered digital content). 

There are not yet clear data on the impact of the digital activities undertaken by museums in this period; however, there are some first surveys and insights. In Spring 2020, ICOM conducted a survey, including over 1600 responses from 107 countries (ICOM 2020a), while UNESCO assessed the impact of COVID-19 on museums worldwide (UNESCO 2020). Both reports were published in May 2020 and highlighted the economic difficulties, with almost all museums worldwide being closed in April and a significant increase in unemployment; the increase in digital activities (+15% according to ICOM), although unevenly distributed around the world – UNESCO highlights the striking digital divide between museums worldwide, noting how only 5% of the museums in Africa and Small Island Developing States have been able to offer digital content. A follow-up survey in the autumn by ICOM included over 900 responses (ICOM 2020b) and was published in November 2020. This report confirmed an increase in digital activities, with social media activities having grown by 41% during 2020, and a substantial interest in maintaining this attention on ‘digital’ in the future, by rethinking the digital strategy (76% of responses) and increasing the digital offer (74% of responses).

The richest survey in Europe was launched by NEMO (Network of European Museum Organisations): it run between the 24th March and 30th April 2020 and it collected nearly 1,000 survey responses from 48 countries (mostly European ones, although there were responses also from other continents). The results focused on the economic impact of the lockdown, the increase in digital projects, and crisis awareness measures and responses. The report noted that “4 out of 5 museums have increased their digital services to reach their audiences […] Almost half of the respondents stated that their museum is now providing one or more new online services.” (NEMO 2020a: 2). There have also been multiple researches at national level. For example, in Italy, the Observatory for innovation in cultural heritage has started tracking social media engagement growth (Pirrelli 2020), and the Italian ICOM has already published a first survey (consisting of only five questions) to gauge the digital activities launched by Italian museums (ICOM Italia 2020).

Besides these surveys, there is also a series of more reflexive articles and blog posts by practitioners and researchers in the field (e.g. Campbell 2020; Debono 2020), including a reflection on future questions museum will have to deal with in relation to their digital strategy (Unitt, 2020a), as well as discussions on methods for evaluating the success of such initiatives, for example through Google Trends data (Alexis 2020; Unitt 2020b).

In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected the museum sector, including its digital transformation. There is already a range of data available and different lists of resources. In this context, this paper will present a project aimed at developing a map of the digital projects launched and promoted by museums in this period.

Aims

The project that will be presented aimed to:

  1. Collect data on museum digital initiatives during the pandemic.
  2. Make the collected data immediately available to the public through an interactive map.
  3. Observe the technologies and workflows used in these initiatives.
  4. Consider public engagement with museums during the pandemic.
  5. Reflect on the long term impact this period will have on museum digital practices.

The following discussion will focus in particular on the first three objectives, before briefly reflecting on the first insights about engagement and impact of this period on museum.

Methodology

 


Cite as:
Zuanni, Chiara. "Museum digital projects during COVID-19: from lockdown connections to digital transformation?." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 29, 2021. Consulted .
https://mw21.museweb.net/paper/museum-digital-projects-during-covid-19-from-lockdown-connections-to-digital-transformation-2/