Has the digital museum finally come of age?

15 May 2020

Illustration: David Biskup

Written by Thomas Campbell and Adam Koszary and published originally by Apolo, The International Art Magazine, 4 May 2020.

With museums worldwide closed as a result of the coronavirus, many are finding innovative ways to connect with audiences digitally. But can the online experience compare to being in a physical gallery?

Thomas Campbell

Two days after 9/11, Mayor Giuliani called the leaders of New York’s museums and asked them to reopen as fast as possible. During the following weeks, the museums were packed with dazed New Yorkers looking for solace in their favourite works of art and familiar buildings. The unusual aspect of the coronavirus crisis is that social engagement is the medium of transfer; isolation the prophylactic. Had we faced this pandemic in 2001, the impact on the art world would have been even more devastating. Today, as much of the globe undergoes some form of quarantine, we are able to continue many of our business and social interactions in the virtual realm. Museums that have invested in their digital assets over the last 20 years are set to benefit from this moment.

There is ferocious competition to jump into action. Museums and galleries worldwide are now poised to deliver virtual tours, artworks of the day, web seminars and discussions, social engagement and, especially in the US, online fundraising. Audiences are downloading this content at unprecedented levels, with many responding in creative ways: witness the hilarious responses to the Rijksmuseum and Getty Museum promoting challenges to recreate works of art with household items. The speed with which museums and audiences have adapted to this enforced shift from analogue operations to virtual activity is staggering.

It’s amazing to me how impossible this would have been 20 years ago. As a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1990s, I recall my own resistance to writing for the website. But a team of digital evangelists in the education department was determined to get every curator to write for the Timeline of Art History. I suddenly realised the power of a medium in which production took days, not months, and which reached a much larger audience than traditional publications. That experience shaped my thinking when I was appointed director of the Met in late 2008. Timeline apart, the museum was lagging in the digital realm. The website had been developed as a marketing tool and our collection was only partly online – the museum had 23 separate collection databases that were not synced. We created a digital department, rebuilt the website, and consolidated the collections in a single database. Gallery descriptions and object labels were created for desktop exploration, and online publications were envisioned that privileged beautiful photography of artworks alongside the voices of the people who cared for and about them.

Yet when in 2010 I met with Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google at the time, and asked him where we should be putting our efforts, he pulled out his BlackBerry and said the future was all about handheld devices – which he predicted would become smaller, more powerful, cheaper and therefore ubiquitous. Over the following three years, we invested heavily in wiring the whole museum for digital access, not an easy task in a building that covers the length of four city blocks, has multiple floors and in which the walls are as much as 14-feet thick. As we continued to invest in curated content, uploading all our publications online in searchable PDFs, and creating series such as 82nd and Fifth, The Artist Project, and #MetKids, we also began experimenting with social media. It took a lot of people and investment to push the Met into the digital age, but proportional to what we were spending each year on acquisitions, exhibitions and traditional publications it seemed an appropriate extension of our mission. And while there were a few sceptics among the trustees and staff, I believed strongly that, as with the televising of sport, the new technology would enhance the experience of existing audiences, while helping us to reach new ones.

Today, as art lovers (and desperate parents!) around the world browse the web for research, entertainment and distraction, there is no doubt that the digital museum has truly arrived. But I also think that this will be a time of reckoning and reflection for museums trying to substantiate their footing in the digital world. For all the feverish diversity of content now on offer, the digital platform is often facile, superficial, and undiscriminating. I suspect that within a few years, the augmented and virtual-reality technologies being developed in the gaming industry will result in more convincing simulacrums of being in the world’s great museums. And we’ll be able to choose from a range of customised curatorial avatars to guide us (the mind boggles).

But for now, it is hard not to avoid intellectual indigestion from this smorgasbord of digital content. As I hunker down during this period of lockdown, I’m looking forward to balancing this digital learning experience with some serious analogue activity: time to finally alphabetise my library of art books, and to dig into a few of those tomes that I have been too busy to read in my life pre-isolation. They look so beautiful on my bookshelves and coffee table – I’ll start with that one, right there, on Habsburg tapestry patronage. But first, I’ll just quickly check my Instagram…

Thomas Campbell is director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Adam Koszary

‘We may be closed,’ stated museums large and small after being forced to shut their doors as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, ‘but we are open online.’ Listen closely, and you could hear the stressed whispers behind the scenes: ‘But what on earth does that mean?’

It’s no surprise that for a lot of museums it means taking what is on show in their galleries and putting it on the internet. This is no bad thing for people who already go to museums – the Royal Academy of Arts’ virtual tour of Léon Spilliaert has been enormously popular, for instance. There’s a healthy and valued audience whose members want the gallery experience in their own homes.

The issue comes when we try to connect to a broader and more diverse audience. Museums are competing, now more than ever, with incredibly entertaining and creative content which is pumped out at a dizzying rate. Posting a Van Dyck painting with its gallery label on your social media channels just isn’t going to compete with a video of a sneezing panda. Too often museums are used to assuming their collections have self-evident worth to people, and those that are blessed with booming visitor numbers are unused to fighting for attention online.

I always try to remember that some of my best experiences in museums have come from talking to an enthusiastic tour guide, gallery assistant, curator or educator. We need to forge that human connection for people to care, and that often requires a willingness to take risks.

As an example, allow me to present Tim Tiller. He’s the security chief at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and, as one of the very few people left behind when they locked down, he was given the museum’s Twitter account to manage. Ever since, he’s been tweeting about displays in the museum in a manner to which the Twittersphere is unused. This means signing off every tweet politely with ‘Thanks, Tim’, and spelling out ‘#hashtag’. It has been one of the most popular online things a museum has done during the pandemic.

Think about that for a second. The vast majority of people are not falling over themselves for digitised paintings, online gallery visits or any kind of virtual reality – they are simply enjoying the stories told by a security guard who is new to using hashtags.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. The internet is at its best when it’s community-focused and organic. Luckily, there are people out there who are bringing their skills to bear. Freelancers such as Sacha Coward have been filming themselves sharing their knowledge and stories through #MuseumFromHome. People have been recreating artworks using what they have around the house (I saw a Madonna and Child recreated with a towel and a bulldog), and the campaign has been picked up and celebrated by the Rijksmuseum and the Getty Museum. The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading has asked people to design smocks based on their collections for the popular escapist video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Many others are offering resources for homeschooling and learning new skills at home, including creative challenges. In short, plenty of museums have recognised that their audiences aren’t necessarily waiting to be told about a Van Dyck painting (though some are), but are looking for unique ways to combat boredom and fear.

For the digital museum to come of age our online presence cannot play second fiddle but must be equal to our physical galleries. The tragedy is that a decade of austerity means that many museums have not had the capacity nor investment to get their digital houses in order, to hire vital staff or to train current staff.

But the technology is also not the point – the core purpose of museums is to be places of connection, meaning-making and celebration of all cultures. We can only do that if we embrace online engagement. Museums have become used to being masters of their own spaces, but on the internet we need to embrace the fact that we are one voice among many. We need to give our social-media accounts personality, make our collections relevant and engage in debate. And that may well involve giving the security guard the Twitter account.

Adam Koszary is social media editor at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.