Fine art institutions, along with the museum industry at large, have started moving into the 21st century following the unprecedented lockdown conditions of 2020. The pandemic forced most establishments to close all in-person operations, losing major sources of revenue from foot traffic and ticket sales along with event and fundraising revenue.
During this time, virtual connection was the only way to stay in touch with visitors, donors, and staff, which meant that many institutions around the world had to get creative and implement digital solutions practically overnight. Unfortunately, many had not invested in digital experiences prior to lockdown, so they were essentially starting from scratch, while museums that had a digital presence in place before the COVID-19 pandemic thrived and seamlessly pivoted to stay engaged with their members.
Now, thinking about a post-pandemic reality, museums are forced to face the reality that digitally interactive elements are necessary for engaging with anyone who may not be comfortable going out in public until there is a widely available vaccine and steadfast treatment options.
This group includes many museum staff themselves, as docents tend to be older and therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19. Launching self-guided tour options are essential in order to keep everyone safe. Aside from the pandemic, digital solutions are also necessary to keep upcoming generations engaged with art institutions moving forward.
Whether or not these institutions had a strong digital presence before 2020, they will need that presence in order to welcome visitors back once they reopen as digital experiences will aid in social distancing and continued immersive education.
While the world dove into digital experiences in 2020, a few museums throughout the U.S. stood out by utilizing digital technology to stay in touch with their visitors and keep staff engaged virtually. Here are just a few examples:
Appleton Museum of Art
The Appleton Museum of Art created a STQRY app prior to the 2020 lockdown to create a self-guided tour option for visitors. When COVID-19 social distancing restrictions were implemented, they were able to simply augment the app to guide people safely through the museum while staying 6 feet apart at limited capacity. They also added interactive games to the app to keep people engaged while they were waiting to safely enter the galleries.
Appleton staff also discussed doing a behind the scenes tour on the app to see the artwork that they had to remove from the galleries in order to keep visitors 6 feet apart from each other. This would be an effective way to engage visitors both in the museum and at home. Appleton’s STQRY app recently won the Southeastern Museums Conference Gold Technology Award for its engaging structure and ease of use.
Columbia Museum of Art
The Columbia Museum of Art’s curator virtually engaged with visitors by giving them a sneak peak into parts of the museum that they wouldn’t see in person. An assistant filmed her going into storage and choosing one of her favorite pieces of art that was not on view. She would tell the camera all about the piece and give users a behind-the-scenes experience.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was at the forefront of the augmented reality/virtual reality movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. They created uniquely immersive and engaging digital experiences via this technology. Through immersive animation, they were able to make it seem as though the viewer was traveling into one of their paintings. This stunning visual imagery will definitely make visitors excited to see these paintings in person from a different perspective.
North Carolina Museum of Art
The North Carolina Museum of Art focused their efforts on virtual learning, making sure schools in the area knew that they could still turn to them for virtual field trips using virtual tour technology for the children. In a year when the education system also had to make major shifts, this enriching activity supplemented the hard work of educators in the area to keep children engaged during COVID-19.
Walt Disney Family Museum
The Walt Disney Family Museum was focused on increasing accessibility via digital solutions long before lockdown. Their STQRY app features a social story for visitors on the spectrum that gives a full virtual walk-through description of the museum experience, along with panoramic photos that let visitors know exactly what to expect.This social story allows the sensory experience of the museum to be better received. App users can also take a virtual walk through exhibits in the museum in a Matterport-style layout, and they have total autonomy in terms of what they would like to explore.
Industry Level Solutions:
Along with all of the incredible innovation on an individual establishment level, the industry at large is shifting as well in the wake of this unprecedented year. The priority of a digital engagement strategy for any given museum has largely depended on availability of resources in the past. Now, the Institute of Museum and Library Services announced the National Leadership Grant for Museums Award as part of their Technology and Digital Media Training for Small Museums project.
This collaborative project will empower museums of all sizes to learn, invest in, and improve their virtual engagement strategy through a series of ten modules covering a targeted framework for creating a comprehensive digital strategy.
This landmark project and grant reflects the larger trend toward support, collaboration, and digital experiences needed to bring the museum industry as a whole into the 21st century. Apps can be a major asset now and well into the future, even as social distancing restrictions loosen. An investment in digital solutions now will set museums up for success in the coming decades.
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