Will museums be the same after the pandemic has passed? Before closing their doors due to the pandemic, museums and galleries were slow to adopt digitalization. The ways we explore the arts have not changed much since the early 20th century, with visitors crowding into a room to look at one or two works at a time and read the supplemental information on tiny placards. Although borrowed audio guides and interactive touch screens have created a more personalized experience, they merely complement the in-person experience. Though virtual tours were offered, they were not immersive and often forgotten by the public. Only 25% of museums incorporated a digital strategy into their overall strategic plan while some did not even have a functional website. Then COVID-19 happened.
As COVID-19 spread across the world, big and small museums started closing its doors to the public. Their traditional revenue models were upended since in-person galas and gift shops were no longer viable means. According to the American Alliance of Museums, each museum has lost on average $850,000 in revenue, and some will never recover. It is a huge loss to the surrounding community whenever a cultural institution closes permanently. While larger museums managed to stay afloat from their endowments, smaller community-based ones struggled. In fact, more than half of US museums furloughed staff to maintain operations.
Therefore, museum authorities had no choice but to find creative ways to engage the public with their collections. Digitalization is the one of the easiest ways and most have already started that process before COVID-19. Beijing’s Palace Museum, for example, quickly moved its pieces online to celebrate the Forbidden City’s 600th anniversary. The Museum of Fine Arts Ghent created a 360-degree virtual tour of its largest Jan van Eyck collection – it was one of the most anticipated events of last year. The Smithsonian Institution provided digital resources to teachers and educators, including releasing more than 3 million items for public use.
Others found success on social media instead. The #GettyMuseumChallenge went viral on Twitter as users replicated famous artworks with household items while people fell in love with wholesome tweets from Tim, the security guard, at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Some even ditched their physical locations altogether and became permanently virtual. Traditional black-tie fundraisers were replaced by broadcasted galas and merchandise collabs with fashion brands. Participating in art became more accessible to the public. However, the experience of entering a museum and being amazed at its winding halls and towering exhibitions can hardly be subverted. Furthermore, not all museums can depend completely on their digital offerings, especially those who serve marginalized communities which do not have access to reliable internet.
Coming out from this pandemic, museums need to re-examine their strategies to continue being mainstays of civic life while exploring new hybrid approaches. Institutional leaders are experimenting with setting up temporary pop-up museums in neighborhoods to increase audience outreach or partnering with local organizations to promote open-access digital content hubs. And they are being proven to be widely successful, not with just the new visitors, but also existing ones who have developed a fresh relationship with their beloved museums. As museums prepare for a post-pandemic world, their future will not be virtual, but the Digital Age has finally caught up.
Kyle Nguyen is a Drexel University Co-Op and Marketing Assistant with ESI. Kyle is currently majoring in Marketing and Business Analytics.