By Chiara Zuanni, University of Graz
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, museums increased their digital activities. This Insight summarises trajectories of this sudden digital transformation, reflects on its consequences, and presents a project aimed at mapping museums’ digital responses to the pandemic.
In the last four months, almost all museums around the world have been temporarily closed (90% of them, UNESCO 2020). The long-term impact, as in many other areas of our society, is going to emerge only gradually and is going to be multifaceted. On the one hand, it is clear that the sector will suffer a significant financial impact, following months without revenue and a likely reduced number of tourists over the summer. On the other hand, these months have seen the cultural sector rushing to offer audiences a variety of online ways to engage with heritage content and participate remotely in arts events. Museums, in particular, increased their digital activities by 15% (ICOM 2020): this Insight focuses on this sudden, and arguably forced, growth in the online activities of museums.
In an earlier piece in this Magazine, Helen Rees Leahy pointed out how a ‘digital stampede’ to produce online content is both one of the most visible contributions of museums to our lockdown life and a revealing element of the inequalities in access to cultural heritage (Rees Leahy 2020). Furthermore, if it is true that museums worldwide have increased their online presence, this increase is also unevenly distributed: NEMO (2020a) noticed that ‘4 out of 5’ respondents to its survey (which included, by large, European museums) have increased their digital activities, and UNESCO (2020) pointed out how just 5% of museums in the developing world have been able to do so. Besides, access to these online resources – requiring a device (with computers and smartphones, laptops and tablets, all offering different modes of experiencing this digital content) and a good Internet connection – is equally unfairly and unjustly distributed across the world.
Still, the discovery, promotion, and sharing of online museum resources have been recurring topics in the last months, offering a welcome distraction from the news headlines. In this context, since early March 2020, I have been observing the range of digital activities proposed by museums during the lockdowns. I have been particularly interested in two aspects: sustainability and engagement of these initiatives. While I have previously researched public (digital) engagement with cultural heritage, my current work focuses also on digital preservation and curation. Coming from this background, it has been interesting to observe how museums have quickly adapted existing resources or have, instead, chosen to develop new ones – in both cases, raising questions about the long-term sustainability of these approaches to produce digital gateways to cultural heritage.
Firstly, the digitisation and online availability of museum collections is still a major challenge for museums. A quote that I like to cite when writing about the development of online portals and standards for cultural heritage comes from a review of the first conference on museums and computers, which took place in 1968. Edward Fry noted that one of the potentials of new technologies “within this general area of cataloging is the linking of the data bank from within any single museum to an intermuseum computer network, thus joining many separate data banks into one overall index or repertory of works of art.” (Fry 1970). With some inevitable changes, this ‘intermuseum computer network’ might not be too different from the aims of current Linked Open Data projects. However, current surveys on digitisation in the sector also emphasise how we are still a long way from such ‘intermuseum’: for example, the Enumerate survey from 2017 highlighted how currently only 33% of European museums have descriptive metadata for their collections available online (Nauta et al. 2017). Therefore, while quickly trying to make available part of their collections, museums might have chosen less digitally-robust and sustainable solutions.
Secondly, metadata-enriched open collections are not enough to foster a broader engagement with cultural heritage. Museums have both reused and created resources, promoting different views and engagement modes with collections and their stories. From educational and fun activities for children to the streaming of curatorial talks, from craft resources to social media challenges, there has been a wide range of options to choose from. The outcomes of such initiatives are, however, less clear. For example, a popular blog post suggested that virtual tours enjoyed an early short-lived success (Alexis 2020), but – as it has been pointed out by Chris Unitt (2020) – this conclusion relied on a misunderstanding of the functioning of Google Trends and the uses of keywords in Google searches. Fundamentally, the interest raised by these posts is a further proof of the current lack of clear methods and benchmarks for researching online audiences and evaluating their engagement. As the Digital Culture Report 2019 stated, “understanding how to gather, analyse and interpret audience data is therefore becoming essential” (NESTA & ACE 2019: 9). Indeed, the first part of 2020 has confirmed the urgency of going beyond analytics in order to develop a more granular and in-depth understanding of how cultural audiences experience museum online projects. Given my interest in researching social media engagement (Zuanni 2017a; 2017b), I have begun to collect social media posts of popular hashtags launched during the pandemic (e.g. #MuseumsFromHome, for which I have collected over 160,000 tweets; and #MuseumsUnlocked, with over 105,000 tweets). I have also been documenting the diffusion of more geographically-bounded hashtags: for example, German-speaking institutions have been promoting their activities using #closedbutactive, while Italian museums – as mentioned also by Chiara Bartolini (2020) – have been using, among others, #ArTyouReady.
Thirdly, there has been an impressive surge of contemporary collecting projects (see also Arvanitis 2020). Besides the English-speaking world, where this practice is relatively more established, an impressive series of projects focused on collecting physical and born-digital content has been launched in a range of countries, including Austria (where, at the moment of writing, I am aware of 16 different institutions collecting photos, objects, websites, and diaries about the pandemic). In this regard, it will be interesting to follow how this content will be catalogued, managed, and curated in the future – and indeed the inclusion of contemporary collections in collection management systems and policies is one of the big challenges for the sector, increasingly of interest to both the archival and museum sector. It is a challenge already being investigated and I have myself organised a workshop on the topic in 2019. More recently, valuable guidelines and reports have been published just before the lockdown (Kavanagh 2019; Miles et al. 2020; Alberti et al. 2020).
Documenting museums’ digital responses to the lockdowns
There are a few different portals trying to document the situation of museums during the pandemic. With regard to digital projects, NEMO’s map focused on tracking museum re-openings (NEMO 2020b), but it also included national overviews on digital approaches. Various national ICOM committees and museum associations have also curated lists of resources and initiatives, as well as conducted national surveys (e.g. ICOM Italia 2020; Museumspraxis 2020). Similarly, newspapers, blogs, and professional mailing lists have presented and discussed various aspects of this shift to ‘the digital’ in museums. Following the example of many colleagues, I also wanted to share my insights and data with the community – and I have developed a map to start visualising the dataset I collected, including some social media posts. It is available at this link.
At the moment, we chose to sort our data in eight different categories: contemporary collecting; social media; streaming content; virtual tours (which might have been conceived in very different ways); online exhibitions; games; educational content (whether targeted at children or more broadly for life-long learning); and activities that do not fall in any of these categories. I am aware that museums might have developed activities in more than one area, and we have been discussing the level of granularity with which to categorise them. At the moment, we are adding each museum project separately, so to enable better tagging and filtering by type of activity. Finally, since the most popular social media hashtags included too many data-points that were slowing down and overcrowding the map, I have chosen to currently enable a visualisation only of the #closedbutactive Twitter dataset.
It would be easy to say that the pandemic has transformed our cultural heritage institutions. The situation is, as always, much more complex, with lots of dramatic consequences and glimpses of different future possibilities. Will museums be transformed, and if so, in what ways? Will our access to cultural heritage become more digital and open? How many of the digital projects launched in the last months will survive and develop further? How many ideas will be deprecated for lack of funding, lack of technological resources, or lack of interest? How many people discovered a cultural heritage institution online and will keep on cultivating this interest and relationship once the lockdowns will be lifted?
I don’t have an answer to these questions, of course. But I am certainly interested in following the situation and documenting this particular moment in the history of digital museums. Sabrina and I will continue to add data to the map, and we are also welcoming more contributions. Everyone can add further museum projects by answering a short Google Form: aiming for a broader representation, we have prepared the survey not only in English, but also in French, German, Greek, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. So, if you wish to contribute, please do so at this link and help us document the digital initiatives of museums in this period.
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Dr Chiara Zuanni is a tenure-track assistant professor in digital humanities, museology-focused, in the Centre for Information Modelling – Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities at the University of Graz. Her research focuses on museum data, social media research in the heritage sector, and born-digital collecting. She is a member of the Getty Institute in Ancient Itineraries and local PI for the Erasmus+ project Digiculture (2018-2021).