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In a previous abstract (“Getting Up Close and Personal with Zoo Animals, By Visiting Them Virtually”), we detailed some of the ways that zoos, aquariums, and nature parks had responded to the lack of visitors, due to the COVID-19 crisis, by establishing virtual tours, interactions with the animals, and educational offerings. Such considerations affect other types of public gathering spaces too, leading to a growing trend among museums and art institutes to expand their social, virtual, and digital services. Even as these facilities start to reopen and allow limited visitation, the virtual tours hold great promise for expanding the museums’ reach, as well as the insights they can gain from in-depth analyses of the data that virtual visitors provide.

The museums crafting virtual tours and services are determined to offer both education and entertainment. With their growing library of podcasts, YouTube videos, and social media posts, the cultural institutions are functioning “almost like media-production companies,”  building content that can engage visitors as well.

Such engagement efforts take different forms. Many museums have options to allow users to add images of their favorite pieces to a curated, personalized album. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also provides an augmented reality function that lets people place some of its most famous pieces virtually into their homes or yards, as well as into their Animal Crossing game play. In Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts streamed free yoga classes on its site, with instructors demonstrating poses in its galleries and grounds.

But even relatively standard virtual offerings gained traction during the worst of the pandemic. Searchable art databases maintained by the Guggenheim, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Washington DC’s National Museum of Natural History existed prior to the COVID-19 crisis, but all their usage and visitation rates jumped by double digits when patrons could no longer visit the museums in person.

All these sites have reopened, at least to limited crowds, but they also note their intentions to maintain the interactive, multichannel engagement they have achieved with virtual visitors. Notably, whereas in-person visits offer key benefits to these institutions (e.g., entrance fees, purchases in gift shops), so do virtual visits, in the form of in-depth data about who seeks out the digital content and how they behave once they obtain it. With insights into visitors’ demographics, search histories, and preferences, the museums can better curate their offerings, both online and off, to develop more personalized services and appealing content.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you recently viewed any museums’ online content?
  2. As online content continues to expand, are people likely to continue to visit physical museums? As physical locations increasingly open up to visitors, are they likely to continue accessing the digital content?
  3. How might museums use or monetize their online content?

Source: Daniel Grant, “Pandemic Pushes Museums Deeper into Digital Age,” The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2020