The Virtual Musuem

The Virtual Musuem
3/22/2021
Updated:
4/21/2021

It is impossible to talk about museum visitor experience, virtual or otherwise, without first addressing the devastating effects the pandemic has wrought on art institutions across the country and globe. Now after the first anniversary of the crisis, what was naively thought at first to be a brief, temporary shutdown of museums, lingered painfully for months as the pandemic raged on.

Some organizations opened their doors tentatively in the late summer of 2020 only to find that Covid numbers warranted yet another shuttering. The impact on the already fragile budgets of many American museums, dependent on visitor and tourist income, corporate and private donations, and membership income, necessitated the gutting of programming, cancelation of exhibitions, and the cutting of staff.

Photographed by Flora Westbrook (public domain)
Photographed by Flora Westbrook (public domain)

Those wanting to visit museums once restrictions were loosened found that, depending on the community, capacities had been scaled back dramatically for safety reasons. Many expect that tourism will not begin to recover in sufficient quantity to offer financial relief until sometime in 2022. The longstanding impact of the crisis, including when museums will return to pre-pandemic health, still remains to be seen.

There is, however, some light that breaks through all of these clouds. Technology has certainly helped people stay engaged in the arts and museum culture while still following the restrictions of quarantine. In 2011, Google debuted its Arts & Culture app with 17 partnering museums. Many museums around the world were still executing an arduous, multi-year effort of digitizing collections and making them available online through their own websites. The virtual museum, however, was being slowly birthed into existence, and it was a bold move for those handful of organizations to wade into the waters, but it was also around this time that many American museums were starting to reflect about how to expand their roles in people’s lives to maintain relevance and potentially increase visitation.

The economic downturn of 2008, during which financial reserves that organizations had heavily invested in the stock market evaporated, had a sobering effect and necessitated the need to regroup with some forward thinking in order to attract income. That museums once viewed themselves primarily as archival spaces to be employed for scholarship seemed quaint and out of date.

Photographed by Suzy Hazelwood (public domain)
Photographed by Suzy Hazelwood (public domain)

The majority of the museum going public were not interested in that form of static environment any longer, they wanted something that was event-driven, dynamic, and interactive. When surveyed, a large cross-section of museum-goers cited time with friends and family as the predominant motive for attending a museum. The art was secondary. The museum as a “third space” became the buzz topic. Social media was on the rise and would soon wash over the population; museums were in the position of reshaping their identities for what future museum goers would desire.

As Google Arts & Culture continued to expand, companies offering technologies to museums for in-house tours were also getting more sophisticated, allowing visitors the power of increased control of their own visit. Curators themselves had to examine their roles within this democratization of the arts: With increased abilities for people to guide their own experience and make their own connections using information from websites and apps, it was a situation that would need to be reconciled with. Indeed, those conversations were happening on a continuing basis, and then the pandemic happened.

With doors needing to be closed, the scramble was on around the globe to make the museum experience happen virtually. Debra Myers, membership experience manager at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said in a recent interview, “Although virtual programming has come together for not a great reason, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. We are able to reach a larger audience, for lectures and conversations that we could typically invite an audience of 70 people to now having a capacity of 200 participants. We also have meeting style programs with smaller groups, an example of which is a program offered on teaching people how to look at artwork. There is a huge opportunity to spread out and share information with a larger audience, and everybody is getting awesome information. We are also able to focus on smaller art installations that we might not have had the opportunity to shine a light on.”

When questioned about how curators are responding to this need, she said, “Curators have really taken a willing interest in helping to create these virtual experiences and have offered creative solutions for some of the technical aspects of presenting them. We have programs during which you could ask the curator a question. And older audiences have been embracing the programs and we are making the effort to frame the experience by teaching people how to use the virtual tools for the events. We are finding that people are patient with the process.”

National Coach Museum, Lisbon Portugal (public domain)
National Coach Museum, Lisbon Portugal (public domain)

It is now possible to wander around the National Coach Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, view the superb portrait of Princess Maria Amelia of Brazil attributed to Franz Xaver Winterhalter along the narrow balcony, and within an instant be transported to Elisabetta Sirani’s “Virgin and Child” hanging at the Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. These images can be placed in a personal gallery of your own creation, complete with connections of your own design, but curators are also contributing tours and refining connections between pieces all within virtual platforms that are moving forward in rapid strides.

Google Arts & Culture now has over 2000 participating museums across the globe and over 100,000 objects to digitally roam amongst. There are innumerable possibilities of exploration offered, and it is very possible to dive in for hours without even realizing how many museums you have travelled through, but the idea has always been to entice people into experiencing artwork firsthand and to make museums part of people’s lives.

Photographed by Jennifer Diane (public domain)
Photographed by Jennifer Diane (public domain)

An actual visitor to the National Coach Museum told me, “Walking around the narrow streets of Lisbon and seeing the condition of the roads, I could imagine what it was like to be in a horse drawn carriage down those streets. The sound must have been intense, and you could feel the bumps they must have experienced as you looked at these delicate vehicles.” These are observations that can only be made by experiencing a museum first-hand, they cannot be reached through a computer screen.

“I don’t see these virtual programs ever stopping,” Debra Myers said. “The virtual and in-person will go hand in hand.” In the near future, when the pandemic loosens its grip, people will have a desire to congregate and create new memories, and hopefully people will choose to have that happen in a museum space. One on-line review of a virtual museum app read, “This is a great way to explore all the museums I will visit when this is over. I can’t wait.”

David Pires is the manager of visitor services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and received his BFA in writing and publishing at Emmerson College
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