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 (https://digitalmuseums.at). 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, situate them within the broader discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on museum digital practices and delineate 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); 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 reports have been compiled by various stakeholders: in the US, American for the Arts has been surveying the economic impact on artists, arts organisations, 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 (Network of European Museum Organisations) has surveyed European organisations.

The digital initiatives developed by museums during the pandemic 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 and #MuseumsUnlocked have been two extremely popular campaigns worldwide, while others 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”, such as the #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. Between April and May 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 September and October 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: it run between the 24thMarch and 30thApril 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

This project 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.

Mapping museum digital projects during the pandemic

In order to collect and quickly publish information about the range of digital initiatives launched by museums during the pandemic, this project used a map visualisation. This map, created in April 2020, was published in June 2020 – with data collected since early March from a range of online resources and through the observation of museum websites and social media activities.

Figure 1. Central Europe section of the map (full map available at https://digitalmuseums.at).

This visualisation draws on a series of Google Sheets (with data added by the research team, by museums through a survey, and through the Twitter archiving tool TAGS), in which a script allows directly geocoding the location of each institution (via the Google Maps API), before creating a simple Leaflet map. In this way, it is possible to use the same workflow across different datasets, speeding up the collection and publication of the data.

As mentioned, there are three main type of datasets. First, a document to which data have been added directly by the research team (Chiara Zuanni and Sabrina Melcher), relying on a series of sources (museum websites; news articles; social media posts about the projects; etc.). Secondly, a survey allowing everyone to add their own initiatives: this consist of a short Google Form, available in different languages (German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian), which collects data according to the same categories of the first dataset. These two first datasets include, for each activity submitted, the name of the museum (which is used to search for its geographical coordinates), the type of activity, a short description, links, keywords, and eventual hashtags.

The broader categorisation of the digital projects, defined by the “type of activity” selected, includes the following organisation of the range of initiatives: Rapid response collection, Social Media, Streaming talks, Virtual exhibition, Virtual tour, eLearning, Gamification, and Other type of activity. These are presented with different markers on the map: by clicking on each marker, a pop-up shows the name of the museum, the type and description of the activity, and a link to the initiative (when available). It is possible to filter the map for each of these categories, as well as to distinguish between the data entered by museums (via the survey) and those added directly by the researchers. This last division, between data added by the researchers and crowdsourced ones, is due to the fact that we chose to prioritise the quick publication of the data: as a consequence, the projects added via the survey have not yet been fully checked for consistency (e.g. in the length and completeness of the descriptions) and, given that we proposed the survey in multiple languages, the answers have also not yet been translated in English.

Finally, data from different Twitter hashtags has also been collected and is being analysed. As an example, we show on the map a sample of the tweets for the hashtag #ClosedButActive, which – in parallel to #ClosedButOpen – was widely used in the German speaking area. By clicking on the marker, it is possible to see the content of the tweet, the username, and a link to the original post on Twitter. However, the display of social media posts raises both a series of clarity and ethical questions, as it will be discussed below. As a consequence, the visualisation of the social media datasets will require further development.

Data and analysis

This map was made public at the end of June 2020, and – as of the beginning of January 2021 – it includes 780 records, from about 35 countries. However, the data reflects a broader range of initiatives, due to some “group” entries (i.e. multiple projects by a single museum listed together), projects developed across different institutions (i.e. listed once, but corresponding to multiple online events and/or portals). In contrast, some of the data are not visible on the map, due to the lack of a clearly identifiable geographic location or the multiplicity of possible geographical tags (e.g. collaborations between museums). Refining the dataset and addressing these issues is therefore one of the current priorities for the project. At the same time, the collections is still on-going – with new projects being regularly added, so that the discussion of the data can only reflect the status in early January 2021, with the initial results of the analysis on the current data.

Given the scope and methods of the collection, the data do not have statistical validity: the datasets reflect a set of findings, conditioned by the language and search methodologies of the research team and the reach we could achieve with the survey. For example, the two most represented countries are the United States (ca.250 projects) and Germany (ca. 180 projects): in the first case, it is likely that this is more of a reflection of the online reach of US initiatives, through their popularity in press and online media discussions and their positioning in search engines; in the second case, the language of the researchers contributed to facilitate the findings of German language projects, rather than other languages.

Figure 2. Distribution of the type of activities.

 

The “type of activity” category is also slightly biased, given the broad remit of each category which meant museums tagged their own projects in slightly different ways. However, this offers the possibility of developing a first analysis of the data – and the following will focus on these first insights.

Among the broad categories chosen for a first organisation of these activities, “virtual exhibitions” are the most common (ca. 220 projects). The description and keywords used to describe these projects point to a variety of understanding of the “virtual exhibition” theme, and also to a variety of technologies. It is clear that projects in this category include mostly digital exhibitions and online collection portals, as it was expected. However, it quickly becomes apparent that in some cases the projects were developed within the Google Arts&Culture programme; some projects included 3D visualisations (with references to “Sketchfab” and “Matterport”); other projects included multimedia content (with references to “YouTube”, “podcast”, “video”, “Spotify”, etc.). In this category, there is therefore a variety of substantial and long-standing digitisation efforts in the form of online collections, alongside with new 3D visualisations and snapshots of the collections via audiovisual media. The category of “virtual tours” is even broader in terms of the spectrum of possible approach tagged as such. In this category, there seems to be a prevalence of audiovisual tours and immersive solutions, with a prevalence of 360° images and mentions of “Matterport” to create tours across those museums. Some of these activities were guided, i.e. with a defined path for the user, while others left more freedom to the user in navigating the virtual space. Digitorials, the format launched in 2014 by the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, the Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, aiming to present exhibitions online through interactive storytelling approaches, were well represented both in the virtual exhibitions and the virtual tours categories. This is perhaps due also to a significant percentage of German institutions in this category, contributing to highlight this specific format.

If the above two categories encompass a variety of digital projects, the remaining ones are more straightforward. In the case of “streaming talks” there are Youtube videos, podcasts, and other audiovisual platforms (e.g. Facebook lives; Soundcloud, Spotify). It is interesting in this case to observe how these products have been curated, with some museums creating playlists, classes, and “series” – while other projects created multiple individual “events”. The content of such audiovisual activities is also variegated and targeted at diverse audiences: from “educational” material to online “conferences”, from artist and curatorial talks to short presentation of various stories from the museum. Keywords emerging from the descriptions and hashtags for these activities focus on videos showing “behind the scenes” content, short stories from multiple curators (as in the Rijksmuseum), “slow-looking” art classes (National Gallery London), longer in-depth presentation of a topic, public lectures and interviews about the collections, etc.

In the case of educational initiatives, which we categorised under the “eLearning” label, the target was by large a young audience. Adults were in most cases mentioned as family members or educators, who could develop those activities with their children and/or students. Worksheets, educational videos and pages, tutorials, quizzes, DYI activities constituted the majority of the material – with a focus on creativity, history, and science content. Fewer activities were tagged in the category of “gamification”, and those were mostly aimed at children. These games were focused on specific themes within the museum or were time-delimited (e.g. a virtual egg-hunt organised by the Musée national d’histoire naturelle of Luxembourg). However, there was a clear overlap between this category and the eLearning category, which indicates a need of analysing further projects in both categories. In this sense, it would be most appropriate to reframe this category as a subset of educational activities, considering it in parallel to other approaches (e.g. storytelling; worksheets; etc.) in the eLearning category. In regards of the social media category, it should be clarified that this includes individual initiatives by museums rather than participation in some of the broader social media campaigns and events (e.g. #MuseumsFromHome). For this reason, these projects tend to be more specific, with individual museum social media pages offering content about objects, exhibitions, and stories in the institution, or for example, offering art classes and resources via the platforms, encouraging audiences to share their creative work. If the survey captured this more “local” use of social media platforms, the previously mentioned Twitter data collection allowed capturing content from some major hashtags and from Museum Week, this latter dataset allowing a comparison with data from past editions of Museum Week (previously captured by the researchers, see e.g. an analysis of a 2016 dataset in Zuanni, 2017).

The contemporary collecting (or rapid-response collecting) category included all the initiatives aiming at capturing memories, witnesses, materialities, and born-digital content relating to the pandemic. In this sense, this category demonstrates a notable increase in such digital contemporary collecting activities in 2020, with projects from a wide range of countries (besides Anglo-American institutions and Scandinavian countries, where those projects have been often discussed in recent years, the dataset includes initiatives also in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and Croatia). Finally, a last category was left completely open, so to include other types of projects, which were not covered by the previous categories. Here, it is possible to see portals serving as collection aggregators, archives and libraries projects, mobile applications, blogs, and newsletters.

Discussion

This project collected and quickly visualised on a map many digital projects proposed by museums in 2020. The initial aim was to create a resource listing these initiatives, which could serve as documentation and possibly inspiration of the range of activities with which museums reacted to the closures forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the initial classification of the projects in the broad categories discussed in the previous section aimed at developing a first immediate organisation of the projects, but – as it has been demonstrated in the analysis – this taxonomy needs now to be further refined, and complemented by more qualitative data. A more robust database of projects, consolidating the datasets and adding clearer descriptions and more possibilities of exploring the projects, is in planning.

Still, it is possible to identify four main strands within the dataset:

  1. Presentation of collections and exhibitions online, using a range of technologies (databases; interactive websites; 3D visualisations; audiovisual “tours”).
  2. Public programme, whether as “live” streams and webinars, targeted at adults, or downloadable resources, video series, and short games, targeted at families and educators, contributing to educational activities.
  3. Social media, with a significant part of the previous content (e.g. virtual tours or educational videos) offered via social media platforms – as well as the growth of interest and participation in social media engagement campaigns, from global hashtags to local initiatives, from long-established platforms to emerging ones (such as TikTok).
  4. Contemporary collecting has grown notably, with many new institutions worldwide starting to collect memories and witnesses of the pandemic.

Of course, the online presentation of collections has a long story, and there are plenty of examples and discussions in relation to digitisation, cataloguing, metadata enrichment, portal development, etc. Among the variety of projects, the development of online collections portal is the most financially challenging and time-consuming. Most of the projects belonging to this category were pre-existing the pandemic, drawing on years of developments. In this sense, the findings are aligned with the results of the ICOM survey in the autumn, according to which only 7,7% of museums started to work on online collections after the lockdown, while around 54% continued or enhanced existing activities in this area (ICOM, 2020b: 17). In the future, it will be interesting to observe how these long-term policies of digitisation will be evaluated in light of the experiences of the pandemic, and whether there will be renewed energy in developing digitisation strategies within more institutions. Conversely, digital exhibitions focus on a more limited number of objects and themes, and thus many of these projects were also created or enhanced during the pandemic, again in line with the ICOM findings according to which 15,5% of museums started to offer online exhibitions after the lockdown (ICOM, 2020b: 17). In this area, the datasets include some overlap with the idea of “virtual tours”, which consisted – as discussed above – of virtual reconstructions or reproductions (e.g. through 3D scans or 360 photos) of the physical spaces of the museums, as well as audiovisual presentations. A challenge will be providing sustainable solutions for many of these virtual tours, often relying on third-party platforms and on quickly evolving technologies.

The development of a series of streaming events and audiovisual content, substituting the on-site public programmes, led to the rapid deployment of content on live-streaming (e.g. Facebook live) and conferencing platforms. Digital events are indeed one of the major changes brought by the pandemic: also according to the ICOM data, they were first started by 24,9% of museums during the lockdowns, and increased for another 21,8% (ICOM, 2020b: 17). With the exception of videos directly uploaded to YouTube (or recorded and uploaded there afterwards) or on other video platforms, a lot of this content proved ephemeral. And indeed, it is beyond the possibility of many organisation to preserve all the content produced in temporary events and online gatherings. As a consequence, the ephemerality of some virtual tours and some video content raises challenge for researching the approaches and engagement results of such activities, and this is an area in which more qualitative data are needed in order to understand audiences reception of these digital initiatives. An increase in learning programmes, what we categorised under the “eLearning” label, was also noticeable, paralleling and aiming to support the switch to distance learning in schools as well as, and at a first analysis on a greater scale, contributing to free-time activities for children at home.

Social media constituted a large part of museum digital activities, one of the most significant ones according to the ICOM report. However, it stands out how this form of communication has resulted as fully established within museums, with 47% of them reporting the same usage as before, 41,9% increasing their activity, but, in contrast, only 3,8% of the museums joining a social media platform for the first time in 2020. Although social media engagement has proven successful in some major campaigns, this remains an area in which a significant amount of research is needed, and we hope in the coming months to be able to contribute to it with a richer analysis of the social media datasets we collected in this project. Indeed, the need for digital audiences research and benchmarking – not only on social media, but also in regards of the other digital activities by museums – has been repeatedly mentioned in recent years (e.g. NESTA & ACE, 2019), and first surveys (e.g. by the Audience Agency, 2020) are starting to delineate profiles and expectations of these online visitors.

Finally, social media did not only foster dissemination and conversations with a variety of audiences, but were also used to prompt the collection of memories of the pandemics. These collections were activated through hashtags on social networking platforms or through submissions of content via the museum website, this latter method allowing to reach non-social media users, but also to allow users to provide more information about the “object” they were submitting, clarify more details, and guarantee a clearer copyright agreement. Museums, but also archives, libraries, and research institutions, have all been collecting memories and witnesses of the pandemic and its impact on life in 2020. The challenge ahead lies in the curation, preservation, and display of this heterogeneous, often born-digital, material, and it will foster further developments in contemporary collecting practices. Thus, it will be very interesting to see how these projects will evolve and influence future collecting strategies and workflows in collection acquisition, management, and preservation.

Conclusion

In the last year, the pandemic has prompted museums to develop creative solutions, often on a budget and while working in difficult conditions. Similarly, audiences have found relief and distraction by looking at museum digital offer, and have creatively engaged with cultural heritage through social media challenges. This project has attempted to capture some of these activities, in order to constitute a record of what has been called – probably too emphatically – a “digital turn” in museums. However, it is still early to trace the future developments of this situation – in which new relationships with the audiences, new digital content and renewed digital skills, but also challenging personal, financial, and political situations have affected the ways digital work happen and is considered within museums. For this reason, this project is only a step towards a more nuanced understanding of the impact of the pandemic on museum digital practices – and this research will continue over the coming months, in order to observe the long-term impact of 2020 on the development of digital strategies within museums and on public engagement with digital cultural heritage.

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Cite as:
Zuanni, Chiara. "Museum digital projects during COVID-19: from lockdown connections to digital transformation?." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 16, 2021. Consulted .
https://mw21.museweb.net/paper/museum-digital-projects-during-covid-19-from-lockdown-connections-to-digital-transformation/