Digital museum trends: 2020

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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 2020, we looked at the #museumsfromhome, digital museum visitors, influencers, digital museum paid subscriptions, and the potential for online shops.

2020 will always be remembered as the year museums closed as part of the national measures to reduce social interaction and prevent further infections of the Covid-19. We moved the Museums in Context course fully online on 12 March 2020. Students had to creatively find alternative sources of data and adjust their thesis research projects. It was not easy, but we had great results. Regarding Dutch museums and the further cultural sector, a wonderful timeline of relevant policies was compiled by the Boekman Foundation, with an international variant at the Compendium site. Dutch museums were allowed to open the doors on 1 July 2020 if they could ensure visitors would be able to stay 1.5m apart, assisted through online booking to manage the crowds, setting a maximum of visitor numbers depending on the size of the museum (roughly 1 person/couple per 10 m2), and devising walking tracks to minimize unnecessary encounters (such as marking a door to go in and a different door to go out).

Trend 1: Museums make a digital leap to digitise their work process. Notable will be their ability to understand their visitors thanks to online bookings and development of online income generation services like the museum online shop.


When museums closed their doors, digital communication channels became more active, with social media as primary choice. A great blog entry by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam documents the work done behind the scenes regarding the digital back end. On the front end, Kate Archbold selected highly popular museums and studied their lockdown reaction through nearly 300 posts in Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

The British Museum in London had just launched a new website, which was not readily apparent through social media, and did not appear to create new content during the lockdown. Instead, the museum posted their characteristic high quality images and referred to previous materials such as a Curator’s blog entry from 2018, a 3D models of a chess game in Sketchfab from 2017, with curator’s story from 2017, and Google’s indoor street view from 2015. The British Museum does not advertise their new YouTube or podcast content clearly (a Facebook post contains 11 links to explore collection from home). The museum is rather formal and does not engage through art challenges. In Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum quickly introduced a series of videos where curators presented the collection from home (20 March), which later was adjusted to RijksmuseumUnlocked (12 June), presumably to continue as regular online service. A Facebook group was started called ‘Dutch Art Masters‘ for everybody to share favourite works of art (17 March). Their content is mostly in English and specific posts are in Dutch, clearly noting all the new video releases made during the lockdown. The Musée du Louvre in Paris celebrated its 30 year anniversary of the inauguration of the pyramid during lockdown. A series of videos by curators presenting the collection was released as part of the #LouvreChezVous. The #WorkOfTheDay serve to highlight the collection, with captions to reposition the collection such as ‘Need some fresh air?‘ posting both in English and in French. Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence posted longer captions explaining the collection exclusively in Italian, except for a call to the public asking for pictures from the museum #ArTyouready (28 March). They engage readers and use #Buongiorno to highlight a work of the collection. The Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofia in Madrid post exclusively in Spanish. The museum welcomes the day with #DespiertaConArte to highlight an object in the collection. It is not clear how much new work was created by the museum.

Kate’s initial interest in the subject was sparked by the #MuseumsFromHome hashtag. She organised hashtags used in the second half of March into 10 categories:

  1. Time related hashtags, often used by Uffizi, such as #Buongiorno (good morning).
  2. Thematic/ descriptive hashtags, to contextualise the image used, such as #library.
  3. Categorical hashtags, specific to the art object, such as #paintings and #RomanArt.
  4. Current events hashtags, not-corona related, such as #WorldPoetryDay or #daylightsavingstime.
  5. Artists hashtags, such as #Chillida.
  6. Museums hashtags, including the name of the museum or their spaces, such as #AuditoriumLouvre.
  7. City hashtags, in relation to the museum, such as #AmoFirenze.
  8. Activity hashtags, including #TussenKunstEnQuarantine (between art and quarantine), which invited the audience to engage and contribute with their own content.
  9. Lockdown hashtag, for all specific activities, such as #MuseumFromHome and its variations (#LouvreChezVous, #RijksmuseumFromHome, #ElReinaEnCasa, #StayAtHome), but also #ApplausVoorDeZorg (applause for medical staff) and #QuarantineLife.
  10. The last hashtag covered the ‘other‘ category to include #fakenews and all the rest.

The experience highlights museums can engage their audiences by inviting personal (re)creations and by connecting the ‘people’s’ side of the museum: museum staff and their audience through art. Four benefits can be identified of such online communication: the use of hashtags can potentially reach a wider audience, museums can stimulate civic engagement, contextual text and hashtags can serve to recontextualise collections, and fun activities can invite appropriation and co-creation, lowering the threshold to interact with museums.

Trend 2: Museums learn how to engage their audiences through social media and join social local and global events.Screenshot 2020-08-03 at 12.00.49.png

Regarding the online museum consumers, Elisa Pellegrini asked 225 Italian residents why they visited (online) museums, and found that people like to physically visit a museum for their collection and their building (Table 6) while the online visit is mostly driven by learning (from experts), to look at art, and to visit new places (Table 7).

Based on the NEMO report of increased online traffic during the lockdown, it was expected that more people visited museums online. Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case. Elisa’s respondents who never visited an online museum went from 48% before the lockdown to 43% during the lockdown – hardly a change ! Respondents reported not knowing about the online services provided by Italian museums online as main reason for not visiting. On the other hand, those who visited online museum before the lockdown on a regular basis, reported visiting more often during the lockdown. From the 225 respondents, those aged 18 to 24 years old have greater diversity of hardware to access museums online with laptop being the first choice, followed by the smartphone and the tablet. The same age group was the most frequent online visitor.

Respondents reported preference for active and engaging activities for the online museum such as quizzes or learning from an expert. When respondents were asked how they would administer the social media account of a museum, interactive activities such as quizzes, tests, games, contents and interaction with a guide were preferred by nearly half of the respondents. However, reported leisure activities online were mostly passive, with listening to music or watching TV as first choice across all age groups, followed by reading the news online. Results further supported previous evidence that individuals with greater levels of education or a specific relation to the arts reported greater frequency of museum attendance.

Trend 3: Young museum consumers adopt online museum services as extension of the physical museum and as part of their overall cultural consumption palette.

Screenshot 2020-08-03 at 16.59.16.png

From previous cultural economic studies we know motivation to visit museums can be linked to the intrinsic value of art, to the identity of an individual or group, and to the socio-economic background. A few Dutch museums are adopting the social media influencer as marketing strategy to attract young, digital consumers. Femke van Leeuwen disseminated a survey via 14 museum influencers and analysed the nearly 200 responses received to find all respondents visit museums regularly. This suggests that influencers have not succeeded to attract a new audience but instead could serve as nudge to increase frequency of visits. All followers have the traditional profile of a museum visitors of a younger group (18 to 29 years old). Respondents generally (somewhat) disagreed (43% of respondents) that they look at art more often but (somewhat) agree (47% of respondents) that they look at art differently, that they gain knowledge (54% of respondents), and that they are inspired to visit a museum more often (76% of respondents).

A clear distinction was evidenced between respondents with and without an art education. Those with an art education are the majority of the influencers’ followers though report preferring museum accounts as they find influencers fake, yet still appreciate their aesthetic sensibility and re contextualisation of the museum. Those without an art education appreciate the increased consumption of art online and tend to be more influenced to visit a museum. This last group is still rather small but interesting in that it may serve to understand the social effect of online museums.

Trend 4: Online availability of museum content will increase the visual vocabulary of the general consumer, enriching the aesthetic sensibility and overall capital of social media consumers.

Screenshot 2020-08-05 at 10.46.58.png

Aart Grutters ask 100 Dutch online museum consumers about their perception of what a museum is and does, with exhibition being considered the most important service provided (see Graph 1). While museums have an important social role in the preservation, conservation and research of collections, the social memory task appears to be marginal for present consumers.


Aart then asked about their online museum activity: only 66% of respondents reported using online museum services, which decreased to 51% in the last few months. The services used were generally to find information about the museum (56%) followed by social media (33%). Again, the museum was not considered for its other activities beyond exhibition.


The Netherlands has a successful and growing Museum Yearly Card (€44 per year, owned by 8% of the Dutch population) which gives access to a good majority of Dutch museums for free, with temporary exhibits requesting a modest fee. From Aart’s sample, 31% of respondents had a museum card, made up of mostly full-time employed and aged between 35 to 65 years of age. A last series of questions involved stating the desire to purchase a Digital Museum Card, to include a physical print of an artwork and receive a web shop discount (interesting to 62% of respondents), to participate in an online workshop with an expert and have a personalized exhibition space (interesting to 30%), to take part in an online tour followed by a physical tour of the museum (interesting to 62%), and to be able to access livestream sessions with experts (interesting to 52%).

Respondents in turn suggested the following services as interesting museum online paid services:

  1. In-depth and thorough background stories of paintings (of own choice), museum activities, and art movements by famous people, museum professionals and artists;
  2. A weekly broadcast channel, vlog or talk show in which the museum announces news about upcoming exhibitions, events and courses;
  3. A digital canvas or public loan system to bring a painting from a museum collection into one’s living room; and
  4. Exclusive onsite visits outside opening hours for online museum visitors or entry discounts.

Clearly, personalisation is important as well as the expert role of the museum repositioned in a daily context – beyond the museum walls. This does not appear to be in the current vision of most museum organisations.

Trend 5: Online paid services to access heritage content will favour personalisation as well as daily contextualisation, from museums or other distributors.

Screenshot 2020-08-04 at 23.53.28.png

Carolijn Coolen investigated the museum shops and found little information about them. She was interested in the Rijksstudio Award which crowdsources ideas for the development of new products for the museum shop based on the collection available online, with increasing popularity: the 2014 edition received 810 applications awarding the first prize €1,500, increasing in 2015 to 892 applications and €10,000 first prize, in 2017 to 2,600 applications and €10,000 first prize, and in 2020 to 2,843 applications with a €7,500 Design Award. The top 10 objects are mostly clothing and accessories (10), followed by interior decoration (5) and tableware (5). From her interviews and document analysis, Carolijn found the Rijksstudio Award to be potentially a great tool to develop new products for the shop, yet the museum lacked the infrastructure to streamline the drafting of contracts and were not able to produce any of the proposals, missing out on the benefits from their innovative approach. Only one winning idea of the Rijksstudio Award has been produced by the creative artist and is on sale at the shop.

Partnering in producing selected objects in limited edition series could position the shop as source of specialised quality creative goods. The museum visitor spends just under €2 per visit in the museum shop on average, which could easily increase with a greater quality and diversity of the goods provided. Museum shops often have collection related objects which can have a purely financial goal, to generate income, or an educational goal, such as children’s games or exhibition catalogues. However, a selection of quality collection-related objects with an educational dimension would directly respond to the museum’s mission while stimulating the local economy, strengthening the relation between the museum and its social context, facilitating access to ‘usable’ heritage, and  disseminating the collection.

Trend 6: Museum shops will expand their online reach, benefiting from the increased digital experience of museums and their audiences.

Screenshot 2020-08-05 at 00.37.48

All thesis are currently being archived [URl will follow to access the full thesis].



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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.

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