The Opportunity Cost to your Gallery or Museum of NOT Going Digital

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

COVID-19 has forced a digital evolution. Face-to-face interactions have largely been replaced by face-to-screen interactions at work and socially. Our reliance on digital media for entertainment has surged. The pandemic will have a lasting effect for organizations. Will they continue their digital evolution? Or maintain traditional ways of working and providing products and services?

The Art Newspaper reports that museums saw an average attendance drop of 77% during 2020. UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) reports that museums worldwide have lost 50% of their income. To mitigate this, museums and galleries initiated digital programs, such as virtual tours and classes, to stay engaged with their audiences. According to a survey conducted by Cuseum, a company that offers institutions digital engagement solutions, 92% of museums and galleries now offer digital programs. They began doing this to stay relevant and keep their existing audiences through the pandemic. But through the pandemic, museums found that digital engagements helped them to reach new audiences, as well. The pandemic pushed some museums and galleries to offer XR experiences.

According to MuseumNext, “XR means Extended Reality, the term for the combined Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality technologies.” Many XR assets are beyond the budgets of small-to medium-sized museums and galleries. But larger institutions have used these devices with great success. Research on XR conducted by MuseumNext found that, “[m]obile devices showed the largest potential audience… For location-based XR, however, the results were overwhelming. 96% said they found the experience enjoyable; 92% wanted to try more VR and were keen to share it with others; and 70% felt inspired to learn more about the content they’d seen.” Research indicates mobile devices and location-based AR can be combined for the widest-reaching and most intriguing experiences for museum and gallery guests.

An asset within reach for small-to-medium-sized museums and galleries is Augmented Reality (AR). AR doesn’t require fancy hardware; it functions on an individual’s smartphone. As smartphones increase in sophistication and their cameras and software capacities for apps and image processing become more advanced, AR experiences can advance with them.

Some museums that have taken advantage of AR since the start of the pandemic are the Vatican Museums, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Tate Museum in the UK, and the Akron Art Museum in Ohio. Prior to the pandemic, from 2017 to 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted the XR project ReBlink. The AGO found in audience surveys that “84% of visitors to this exhibition reported feeling engaged with the art. 39% looked again at the images after using the app.”

MuseumNext research findings assure that “[e]ven once the pandemic has faded into a distant memory… engaging with audiences through digital content, online experiences and accessibility initiatives will be critical to the survival and long-term success of museums and galleries in the future. Those that can’t connect with an audience beyond their walls will have a much harder time drawing visitors in to enjoy their in-real-life exhibitions and collections.” XR provides dynamic experiences that cater to different learning styles, particularly for audiences who may not be as easily engaged by more traditional presentations of artefacts and artworks. Digital opportunities can make content more accessible for those with disabilities and others who may face barriers preventing them from accessing the institution in person. Digital content that is accessible after hours provides value for people who want to engage with a museum, but who might not be able to visit during an institution’s operating hours. Going digital is also more sustainable, reducing an institution’s dependence on print material and physical space. Not going digital means missing out on all of these valuable opportunities.

Traditionalists may balk at the idea of digital transformations in museums and galleries. The Pérez Art Museum, Miami (PAMM) conducted a study on their own XR asset to find out if these concerns around digital offerings (e.g., having an isolating effect or alienating older patrons) had any merit. The results were reassuring: PAMM found that patrons used technology together to experience XR and subsequently discussed what they saw. Also, many of the visitors of PAMM’s XR exhibit were in the 55+ age range, and they reported having a positive experience with it.

As the Tate Museum’s Director of Digital, Hilary Knight, says: “[d]igital isn’t there to compete with, replace or detract from the in-person experience… we need to understand how it can provide a complementary, supporting or even standalone experience to lovers of art and culture.” To meet the challenges of the 21st-Century, museums and galleries must evolve. Change is inevitable and necessary for survival. The opportunity cost to museums is too high not to embrace digital tools and strategies.

Written by Micaela Muldoon

The Art Gallery of Windsor (AGW) is a non-profit public art gallery that uses the power of art to open hearts and minds to new ideas.