How the Pandemic Reshaped Museum Experiences

The pandemic forced museums to leverage technology, but will they stay the course?

By Damon Brown

By Damon Brown August 31, 2021

In late 2019, the world’s second-largest museum, the Louvre, launched its first-ever virtual reality experience, “Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass.” Intended to commemorate artist Leonardo da Vinci on the 500th anniversary of his death, the exhibit allowed museum-goers to see da Vinci’s most famous painting up close and personal by donning a VR headset.

A collaboration between VR producers and museum curators, the 8-minute virtual experience used infrared X-rays, rotoscoping and computer-aided design to recreate a lifelike Mona Lisa with which Louvre visitors could interact in order to learn how da Vinci created the artwork, how the painting might have looked in the past and how it has changed over the last five centuries as a result of exposure to light and humidity. Viewers could even see in 3D how the painting’s famous subject, Lisa del Giocondo, might have looked and moved when da Vinci painted her.

“‘Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass’ will provide access to innovative technology, share academic knowledge and transform this knowledge into a very personal experience for visitors,” Dominique de Font-Reaulx, director of the Louvre’s Interpretation & Cultural Programming Department, told Centurion magazine in an October 2019 interview. “[The exhibit] will allow visitors to have an intimate encounter with the artwork.”

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Although it was digital in nature, the exhibit originally was designed to be experienced onsite at the museum. Then the coronavirus happened. By late winter 2020, the Louvre was closed and “Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass” was available to view remotely via smartphone, or through Google’s Cardboard VR viewer.

Like it did with schools, hospitals and offices, COVID-19 forced museums like the Louvre to a technological tipping point from which there’s no coming back.

“Now that museums, and audiences, have discovered the power of virtual tourism, it’s hard to believe they’ll return to convention. With entire collections formatted and developed for online showing and thousands of virtual experiences rolled out for audiences around the world, it’d simply be a waste to hit delete or save to archive,” Lauren Voges of online ticketing platform Tiqets wrote in an article for the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).

“The future of museums in 2021 will likely retain online, virtual reality or augmented reality components.”

Indeed, innovation in museum technology once was limited to self-guided audio tours and occasional digital displays. Now, the possibilities are as vast as museums themselves. From the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., storied institutions across the country and around the world are embracing a post-pandemic future where technology will be as important to survival as donors and visitors.

A ‘Hard Pivot’

When it comes to technology, necessity is always the mother of invention. That’s especially true at museums, which in March 2020 lost access to the entry fees, donation boxes and fundraising events on which they have always relied to sustain themselves.

In June 2021, AAM reported that operating income fell an average of 40% for three-quarters of museums while they were closed during the pandemic—an average of 28 weeks, or more than half of 2020. On average, it says, museums spent about $300,000 each on closing, preparing to reopen and reopening in response to COVID-19.

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Unfortunately, the picture in 2021 isn’t much brighter than it was in 2020, according to AAM, which says attendance at reopened museums is averaging just 41% of pre-pandemic attendance. And with public health policies in a continued state of COVID-era flux, museums’ revenue sources aren’t likely to stabilize any time soon.

“Museums, like all other nonprofits and educational institutions, had to do the ‘hard pivot’: Either your institution was ready to pivot quickly and ‘go digital’ in a matter of weeks or they weren’t [going to make it],” says museum educator and curator Tamara K. Johnston, adjunct associate professor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

“Institutions that had the human resources, hardware and access to do the hard pivot were successful, kept their members engaged and, in some cases, increased their reach. Successful museums looked at the pandemic as an opportunity to retool and understand how they could serve their members and community in new ways.”

Technology: From Extra to Essential

Virtual museum experiences aren’t new. A decade ago, for example, the Google Cultural Institute launched Google Arts & Culture, a digital archive of photos and videos from museum collections around the world, including the Tate in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Uffizi in Florence, Italy.

“Most of the time, the world’s population is living without real access to arts and culture. What might the connections be when we start exploring our heritage, the beautiful locations and the art in this world?” Google Arts & Culture head Amit Sood said in a 2016 TED Talk.

“You can go to the ground floor [of the Guggenheim Museum in New York] and … you can see the architectural masterpiece that it is. But imagine this accessibility for a kid in Bombay who’s studying architecture.”

Google gamified the experience – participants receive special badges for completing tasks – and created a mobile-first design that puts the museum experience into mobile devices instead of putting mobile devices into the museum experience.

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Although he was speaking several years before COVID-19, Sood foresaw a future that the pandemic has solidified: Instead of catering to those who can and do visit them in person, museums increasingly must focus on those who can’t or don’t.

For that reason, platforms like Google Arts & Culture are no longer extra – i.e., a nicety that augments the traditional museum experience – but rather essential: something that in many cases supplants it.

So important are digital experiences that museums can no longer afford to outsource them to computer programmers in Silicon Valley. Instead, many of them are entrusting digital programming to in-house curators.

Take the National Museum of Natural History and The Art Institute of Chicago, which are just two of the many museums that have created homegrown virtual-visit museum experiences that are hosted on their own cloud-based platforms. Both give patrons access to past exhibits, to 360-degree views of museum collections in high-resolution detail and to specialized tours that aren’t available in person – all of which might keep online visitors engaged even as visitors return to the museums in person.

In the case of the former, the Smithsonian Institute had a head start with technology: In 2012, its CIO established the Smithsonian Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS). The server-based platform tags, organizes and secures more than 17 million museum pieces. It’s unclear if the organizations will shift its archives to the cloud, but the gap between its virtual platforms and its physical environment is significantly smaller than at other, similar museums.

What Is the Future of Museums?

Even after the pandemic, it’s clear that museums will need new, innovative and socially distanced ways to stay connected to their audiences, including not only students, museum members and tourists, but also philanthropic donors on whom many institutions rely for financial support.

“We couldn’t do any of the things we usually do to raise money: no admissions, no events, no school groups,” said Laura Colcord, secretary of the board of trustees at Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner, New Hampshire, where a small staff leaned into technology quickly. 

“The donations from individuals, foundations and [federal] PPP loans kept us whole. We developed three key virtual offerings: A virtual tour for school classes, workshops featuring skills like beading or baskets using traditional Native skills, and a virtual powwow.”

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One of the largest Native American gatherings in the state, Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum’s powwow usually brings in more than 2,000 people for authentic dancing, food and ceremony. The virtual version featured a blend of pre-recorded video and Facebook Live sessions. It was so successful that the museum is now looking for other ways to leverage technology. For example, Concord says it plans to incorporate QR codes into physical exhibits to eventually bring the digital experience to the in-person patron.

Regardless of size – big like the Louvre or small like Mt. Kearsarge – museums must now navigate two technological shifts.

The first concerns their patrons. Although their members have often skewed older, the pandemic gave museums an opportunity to reach younger audiences who were looking for interesting things to do in quarantine, and interesting causes to support. As a result, many museums are leveraging digital engagement platforms like Cuseum to enable phone payments, digital membership cards and other convenient, contactless ways of interacting with young supporters.

Last but certainly not least, museums continue to move beyond traditional, tactile exhibits. Sometimes, that means creating two distinct experiences for in-person and remote visitors. Other times, it means completely rethinking what it means to curate an exhibit – which is what New York’s New Museum did in 2019 when it introduced AR(T) Walks, experiential guided walks in six global cities that feature artworks created by artists working for the first time in augmented reality.

Whatever their approach, museums that have long relied on velvet ropes and one-dimensional placards have a newfound opportunity to reinvent themselves around dynamic, cloud-based technologies. If they continue the journey after the pandemic that they were forced to begin during it, the product will be not only more interesting exhibits, but also a more informed and cultured public.

Concluded the Louvre’s Font-Reaulx in her interview with Centurion magazine, “Millions visit the Musée du Louvre each year, but websites, social media and traveling exhibitions mean we have a community of nearly 40 million outside of the museum … It’s exciting that [technology] will help us enlarge our community.”

Damon Brown is a contributing writer. He writes a daily column for Inc. Follow him on Twitter @browndamon.

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