The George Eastman Museum Goes Touchless 

George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the integration of digital experiences into the museum experience. Prior to the pandemic, digital strategy was just becoming a high priority for many arts institutions, but those already with digital solutions were readily prepared.

The George Eastman Museum, located in Rochester, NY, was one of the earlier STQRY clients who adapted digital experiences into their pandemic strategy. This early integration allowed them to go completely touchless in 2020 and into 2021.

With their STQRY app, the staff at George Eastman were able to cater to the needs of their existing visitor and member base while reaching an entirely new international audience with their offerings. This early embrace of digital experiences has now become a cornerstone of their visitor engagement strategy through 2021 and for the foreseeable future.

A Slight (Yet Manageable) Learning Curve

Before lockdown, some museums didn’t invest in digital solutions for a multitude of reasons including a lack of training, lack of budget, and the hopes that the pandemic and lockdown conditions would be over in a matter of weeks or months. However, coming up on a year of lockdowns and restrictions, digital experiences have become necessary in order for many museums to stay afloat.

The good news is that you do not need large bandwidth to create a comprehensive digital strategy. The staff at The George Eastman Museum embraced digital technology early on in the COVID-19 crisis, getting creative with ways they could engage visitors and members virtually.

“I’d say for anyone looking to do what we’ve done, we started out really simple with staff members at home using their phones or computers to take video. As we realized there was an audience for these things, that’s when we started making them more formal,” said Kate Meyers Emery, Manager of Digital Engagement at George Eastman.

“A lot of what we did could be done with tools that staff already had at home. It doesn’t need to be something you’re investing a lot of money into – you can start off by just experimenting,” said Meyers Emery.

The idea that you need expensive equipment, proper training, and specialists in order to create a digital experience is largely a myth, especially with the support of an organization like STQRY and a DIY app builder. With their app, George Eastman was able to expand their digital programming offers, reach brand new international audiences, and supplement the on-site experience once they were able to re-open at limited capacity.

We’ve seen that there’s a true benefit to being in that digital space.....We’re reaching people around the world that are not able to be with us in person.

— Eliza Kozlowski, Director of Marketing and Engagement for the George Eastman Museum

A New Digital Strategy

The George Eastman staff started their digital strategy with educational videos about pieces in the gallery. They also filmed their programming and made it available online for visitors. One of their acclaimed series was called Eastman Museum At Home, and this particular series won them two significant grants to expand their digital strategy.

George Eastman Museum’s educational videos have received over 100,000 views since March. Over 8,000 people have attended the George Eastman Museum’s online webinars, with even more registered, but opting to watch the recorded version instead.

“We’re seeing a lot of creative uses of our content, so that’s very exciting,” said Meyers Emery. She attributes some of the spike in usage to teachers using the content for supplemental enrichment in online learning, but the staff was even more excited and surprised by the new audiences they’re receiving from their digital offers.

“We did a survey last fall to see who our main audience was, and about 50% of the respondents had never visited the museum before,” said Meyers Emery. “Only about 20% of respondents were members. So we’ve been able to tap into a very different, entirely new audience.”

In order to take these new audiences through the museum experience without bringing them on-site, museum staff created a matterport virtual tour. They were able to augment this with both an audio tour, taking you through the museum as if you were with a docent, and an expansion of that matterport to include reading labels and more detailed views of the works.

“We’re trying to get people in this mode of having an experience as if you’re in the gallery with these audio and video promotions,” said Meyers Emery.

The matterport tours quadrupled in usage in 2020, with around 10,000 people using the service. “We’ve seen that there’s a true benefit to being in that digital space,” said Eliza Kozlowski. Director of Marketing and Engagement for the George Eastman Museum. “We’re reaching people around the world that are not able to be with us in person.” 

Enhancing The On-Site Experience

The undeniable value of a digital presence has made it clear that these digital offerings will be an integral part of the George Eastman Museum’s visitor engagement strategy moving forward. “Our plan right now is to be entirely online and touchless for the first half of 2021,” said Kozlowski.

The museum was able to re-open at limited capacity a few months ago, but they have made the entire experience touchless and safe for visitors by implementing digital experiences. The biggest shift they’ve made in this area involves digital ticketing.

Going touchless meant requiring advance tickets so that you would limit contact between frontline staff and visitors. Once people purchase their tickets in advance online, the museum has a standalone scanner where visitors can scan themselves in.

“We’ve gotten to the point where only 16% of our visitors are purchasing tickets on-site.” said Kozlowski. “We’re trying to remove that experience where you’re spending a lot of time standing facing somebody when entering the museum [at the ticket booth].”

When people first enter the museum after scanning their ticket, they are directed to a QR code that brings up the STQRY app, including maps, virtual tours, program offers, and anything else they would need for their visit.

This individual experience is becoming the main form of touring for the George Eastman Museum on-site, as docent tours or hourly group tours would put both staff members and visitors at risk of contracting the virus.

In other efforts to go completely touchless, the George Eastman Museum has also closed their children’s discovery room, any touch screens or kiosks in the museum, and all of their informational videos have been put on a loop instead of a reactive playback.

“We’re not doing any on-site programs for the foreseeable future,” said Kozlowski.

Looking to 2021 And Beyond

The George Eastman Museum staff plans to have in person programs eventually, but when that time comes, the programs will also be live streamed or offered in another online format in order to take the programs beyond the brick and mortar museum and keep this new digital audience involved.

For now, the virtual tour offerings in their STQRY app have allowed them to successfully adapt and expand their digital strategy during COVID-19. “The mobile tours are fulfilling the needs we have on-site both in regular times and now in these new circumstances,” said Meyers Emery.

“We definitely want to keep using it and expanding and exploring the offerings,” said Kozlowski. “As people keep using it and possibly get out more in the coming months, we’ll keep responding and experimenting and seeing what happens next.”

The George Eastman Museum is one of the hundred museums selected for the Museum Association of New York’s half million dollar IMLS grant. The intention of this program is to assist in creating virtual programs, connecting with new audiences, and focusing on stories of culture in NYS communities. This additional funding will allow them to support and supplement the digital experiences they’ve already created, including their STQRY app, allowing them to stay connected with digital audiences moving forward.


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