Digital museum trends: 2018/2019

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Part of my teaching involves advising BA and MA students during their thesis research and writing. Every year, novel ideas on the digital museum are discussed and here I share a selection. In 2018/2019, we looked at the Google Art Institute, non-museum visitors, Instagram, and the new Immersive museums.

The Google Art Institute (GAI) was launched in 2011, originally as Google Art Project and renamed in 2017, in what would become a key example of museums collaborating with a large private firm. The online environment gives access to collections from more than 60 museums in 40 countries supported by other Google services, including gigapixel imaging and indoor street view. Though data on Google is not available, literature initially highlighted the close-up engagement, lack of time constraints, and additional cultural service while also noting copyright restrictions (see for instance Proctor, 2011). Early on, critics noted the lack of Web 2.0ness available in the rather insular project (see for instance Bayer, 2014). Kristina Deković conducted a series of interviews in Croatia and the Netherlands to examine the museums’ motivation to join the online platform and to evaluate the decision with hindsight. All 2 participating Croatian museums (of 200 in the country) and 6 museums from the Netherlands (of 27 involved in GAI from the 600 museums in the country) were interviewed.

Museums reported following a different digital dissemination strategy per platform, so that the GAI included only the highlights of the collection, while (almost) all of their digital collections are available through Europeana. Some museums further reported using GAI specifically for storytelling, providing context and emphasizing the history of the collection. Why did they join? because of the novelty of the project, international exposure, promotion, no costs, more context to collections and virtual reunification. Museums also noted a certain pressure to join as well as a fear of missing out. Small museums were particularly aware of the democratisation of the platform, which positions artworks based on themes and not based on the usual prestige or size of the museum. Why have museums delayed joining GAI? is it because of the inertia to create 3-4 exhibitions a year and avoid the extra effort to learn to work digitally and in English? A Dutch museum reported not wanting to join the GAI due to fear of detracting physical visitors, which has now been recognized as a misplaced fear and instead online presence has become an expected ‘must’.

While all museums join the GAI to give access to collections, none of the interviewed museums had a clear strategy of who they wanted to reach online. The exception was the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam who has a clear strategy – through their own Rijksstudio, and appreciate the GAI to reach an audience regardless of their socio demographic profile. None of the interviewed museums had performed an evaluative assessment of the potential gains of joining GAI (e.g. increase income through ticket and shop sales, gaining new sponsors).

A clear divide could be identified between the established and well funded institutions with a longer digitisation history, who were not sensitive to the free service of Google and even criticised the low image quality, and those who joined GAI because it provided a unique opportunity to digitise their collections, which otherwise would have been nearly impossible due to limited resources (skills, funds, and staff). This thesis is being reworked for publication.

Trend 1: Collections from smaller museums become available online first via Google than through their local/national portals.

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Selin Bayraktaroglu looked at the consumers of the Google ‘online museum’. From the 101 complete online surveys received, 14% of respondents had not physically visited a museum in the past 12 months due to lack of time (33%) or alternative choices for leisure (38%). Because the focus was to determine the extent to which the motivation to visit a museum online was related to the frequency of physical museum visits, Selin divided her respondents nearly in half by setting the visit frequency to higher or lower than 3 visits in the last year. The two groups showed many similarities, including liking the option to visit a digital museum (even if they did not visit) and considering the digital museum a complement, not a substitute, of the physical museum. Most importantly, both groups agreed that they would not visit a digital museum should this require a payment but would consider future consumption to find interesting information.

The two groups showed some clear differences, with those visiting less frequently having less free time due to work, and therefore lower amount of hours for leisure online a day, having a slight higher male representation, and most importantly reporting a larger lack of previous digital museum experience (83% compared to 66% for frequent museum visitors). Non-frequent visitors enjoyed more the digital museum (52% compared to 34% by frequent visitors) and were more likely to return (58% compared to 30% by frequent visitors). The main contribution of this thesis was learning about the non- or less frequent museum visitor in relation to the online experience. This thesis is in the process of being archived.

Trend 2: The museum non-visitor is not likely to become a digital museum visitor under current circumstances.

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Another private online channel of publication is Instagram. Jullaya Vorasuntharosoth looked at the accounts of three large Dutch museums in Amsterdam @rijksmuseum, @stedelijkmuseum and @vanvgoghmuseum and did content analysis of nearly 3,000 posts (from Dec 2017 to May 2018). Her goal was to evaluate the posts’ ability to engage and contribute to taste formation and education, as well as to identify the public image constructed by the museum online. A quick overview of the posts revealed that the Rijksmuseum has greater frequency of posts about their iconic building, writes short texts, and posts no video format while the Stedelijk Museum posts about people (including staff and visitors), writes longer posts, and has the greatest frequency of video posts from the three cases. The Van Gogh Museum behaved modestly in between the other two museums, communicated mostly about the artist’s emotions and context, and had a unique situation in that the film Loving Vincent was nominated for the Academy Awards, generating additional attention. Further, all 3 cases use Instagram for the promotion of exhibitions and events (34-48% of posts) as well as for education (39-51% of posts). The Stedelijk Museum was unique in posting about non-art/non-museum related content (8%, e.g. current events, recruitment) and had greater frequency of posts to stimulate audience engagement (13%, e.g. questions, polls).

The Instagram platform appeared successful in enabling digital consumption of artworks, museums favouring paintings and prints over sculptures or installation, including a clear ‘museum voice.’ Museums were able to interlink artworks through the use of tags (and geotags) and to use the platform to manage a narrative, in strike contrast to their websites, where information is presented in an apparently neutral and factual style used to identify the artwork, often lacking context and isolated from other artworks. Education was also seen as important element in the posts of all 3 museums, where information about the artworks, movement or artists was included. The use of the hashtag #bornonthisday included a short biography and allowed the museum to showcase an artwork, with a clear underlying marketing strategy. Engagement was clearly present in all museums in 3 main variants: asking a question (e.g. ‘Do you think these are the shoes of Vincent?’), asking for feedback (e.g. ‘What is your personal favourite of the exhibition?’), and reposting the audience shared contents.

Jullaya concluded the Rijksmuseum used their Instagram account as promotional tool to drive consumption of a physical visit, through the notable use of the city hashtag #Amsterdam, choosing topics related to holidays, general museum information, and the announcement of events and exhibitions. The Stedelijk Museum is characterized by the Instagram-exclusive campaigns (e.g. community curated shows of objects currently not on display) and engagement projects (e.g. weekly public selection of an artwork) in addition to general communication with the local community (e.g. current events, recruitment of staff and volunteers). The Van Gogh Museum is characterized by the repost of images with a different caption, repositioning the same image within a complete different context and receiving a different response from the audience. This thesis is available here.

Trend 3: Museum Instagram accounts will continue to develop engaging strategies that merge education and marketing for attracting physical visitors.

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Last, the digital images can also be consumed in a physical exhibition, which has been adopted as successful new business model by a French arts foundation Culturespaces. They have innovated in the use of digital imagery to create the ultimate experience good: a location-based digital exhibition. The Paris Atelier des Lumières had a cost of €12 million, and received 1.2 million visitors in 10 months during the first show in Paris (€14 full rate ticket entrance). The foundation has opened similar exhibitions in other countries across the EU, as well as in South Korea and the USA.

Vicki Triantafylloudi investigated the consumer’s experience of the recently opened immersive museums in Greece and in Belgium, in relation to their socio-economic profile. From the nearly 290 filled questionnaires analysed, a slight majority of respondents was male (54%), surprising for a ‘museum audience’, and 97% of respondents gave a positive evaluation of the immersive exhibit (excellent=37%, very good=43%, good=17%). The majority of respondents (81%) reported using technology ‘very regularly’ and ‘excessively’ on a daily basis. Most visitors (62%) were interested in the subject of the exhibit and (25%) wanted to have fun. Only a small minority (9%) visited alone.

The education level of the visitors was positively related to a general satisfaction of the exhibition, while those with an art-related background (academic, professional or hobby) reported a more critical evaluation of the overall experience. Similarly, expectations were an important factor influencing satisfaction. This suggests that the immersion art experience is a great way to introduce the general public (without an art-related background) to museum collections through the use of location-based immersive digital exhibitions. You can find the full thesis here.

Trend 4: Private firms will increasingly make use of museum collections to enrich their experience services offered.

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The year was rather active, we also organised a colloquium on the Future of Museums. A summary and follow up will be the topic of a future post.


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I am a researcher on the historic and economic aspects of digital heritage. In my free time I sing and paint.

One thought on “Digital museum trends: 2018/2019”

  1. La vida digital de los museos cada vez resulta más compleja, como tus tendencias ilustran. Al parecer, las decisiones al futuro continúan sobre puertas variadas y muy anchas que todavía no se han atravesado.

    Muchas Felicidades!

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