Museums must interact with their audiences

Caroline Stevan
Article on the newspaper Le Temps, 29.04.2018

From 26 to 28 April 2018, a symposium on digital innovation in museums was held in Lausanne, at the initiative of Platform 10. This is a crucial issue at a time when new audiences are being won over, starting with the “millennials”. Sharing experiences

At the History Museum of Bern. A redesigned staging to appeal to a new audience. © John Patrick Walder

Screens against white walls. It’s not that simple, but digital technology is a major challenge for museums. Both to make themselves known and to offer new content to visitors. Institutions are taking it on with varying degrees of brilliance and anticipation. They are thinking about it together. From 26 to 28 April, Plateforme 10, the future museum hub of Lausanne, organized a symposium at L’Unil on the theme “The Museum in Challenge. What roles for digital innovation”. Lilith Manz, a researcher in digital museology in Hamburg, was part of the panel of invited experts.

Le Temps: What do you see as the main challenge of digital innovation for museums?
Lilith Manz: Museums are competing with free information on the internet. You can find all the answers on the web and Wikipedia, but there are a lot of mistakes, so they have to manage, for example, to appear at the top of the search results when someone types the name of a painter or a work. They need to reassert their role as experts.

At the same time, new technologies make museums places for dialogue with the public rather than monologues.
Yes, and it is vital that museums interact with their audiences. But they need to be aware that social networks are not just for marketing purposes. The idea is to offer a different narrative of the exhibition from one medium to another. There is the exhibition, of course, but also the catalogue, the website, Instagram… Each one tells a different story and allows for a flexible engagement of the public, with gateways. Instagram can encourage the visitor to go to the website, which may make him or her want to come to the museum physically. The Städel Museum (youtube channel), for example, has created a site entirely devoted to preparing the physical visit. In 2015, it was used by 50% of the public. Today, the visit starts online, and not just by walking through the museum door.

Doesn’t digital technology also allow for a different museography, a more playful experience?
Multimedia tools are multiplying and make it possible, for example, to receive additional information directly on one’s iPhone. The challenge is to find the right balance between the works and these contributions, without them being too distracting.

Because nothing replaces contemplation?
Seeing a painting in its physical dimension and in the space of the museum is indeed a unique experience. But the digital and very high resolution images make it possible to come back to it once at home, taking your time, zooming in on the details… It’s also exciting and it gives the possibility to observe some works that are not on display or far from home. In 2017, for example, in parallel with an exhibition, the Rijksmuseum has brought together on the same website the works of Robert Jacob Gordon kept in the Netherlands and South Africa. The challenge is to reconcile the needs of the public, between generations accustomed to classical exhibitions and those born in the digital world.

Is digital the way to bring young people into museums?
It is indeed a way of making itself more attractive to generations who think that you have to be silent in a museum, know how to behave… when all they want to do is participate. Launching a contest on Facebook can make them want to come and take a closer look. To promote its exhibition The Van Gogh Room in 2016, the Art Institute of Chicago has recreated Van Gogh’s room in an Airbnb apartment, with the possibility of reservation. These are ways of attracting young people to museums. And, on the spot, the possibilities of interaction are numerous. The science museums have understood this very well, for example by offering very playful multimedia content for children.

Who is the very good student in this regard?
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has digitised its entire collection and made it fully accessible and downloadable in high resolution. Everyone is free to do what they want with it – a poster, a textile… – and the best idea wins a prize. One of the winners created a sleeping mask with the eyes of a painting as a motif.

What happens to the curator in the midst of all these initiatives?
He becomes a moderator between conversations that take place on various platforms. He is now required to reflect on the meaning of a work in both real and digital space.

In German-speaking Switzerland, making museums more fun

Two initiatives have just been launched in Zurich to attract “millennials” and first-time visitors.
A dusty image. That’s what keeps a number of people from setting foot in a museum on the weekend. Young people, but not only young people. Against this background, two initiatives were launched in Zurich last summer, supported by Migros Commitment.

“Digital pass.”
Amuze” presents itself as a “digital pass for Swiss museums and their events”. The project, which clearly targets the under-35s, is based on three pillars. A “Lab” was set up last August, bringing together millennials and museum representatives to test ideas. Support is offered to museums, including a digital toolbox and workshops. A club, especially for young people, offers events and soon a tailor-made communication, made of videos or web-series on social networks. On 16 May, for example, at the Kunsthaus Zurich, there will be a fifteen-minute exhibition visit, a half-hour discussion led by Friday magazine, followed by a DJ evening.
“We did a lot of interviews before we started. It emerged that young people find museums boring and elitist. They’re looking for atmosphere more than content. A fifteen-minute visit is enough for them, which is obviously shocking to hear for museums. So the idea is to create some content that is really relevant for these generations,” admits Danica Zeier, founder of Amuze and professor at the Zurich University of the Arts. The service, which is free this first year, will then be paid for by the museums.

Non-professional guides
Letsmuseeum“, on the other hand, relies on customization rather than short format. Launched a few months ago, the project is inspired by the American Museum Hack. The idea? To propose visits to museums by enthusiasts, not professionals. “Our guides choose the museums they like and concoct their favourite itinerary. Our users love it, because someone shares their favourites with them. That’s unusual. Of course, the idea is also that they learn something, but it’s still entertaining,” notes Rea Eggli, the initiator of the project. Five tours are currently on the menu, in Berne and Zurich, from the Museum of Communication to the Rietberg to the greenhouses of succulents. “We coach our guides, but we want to remain independent of the museums so that they don’t interfere with the content,” says the communicator. Visitors, who are hacked on social networks, pay for their ticket but not the guide. The idea, in the long term, is to finance the project through paid visits for companies, workshops… Discussions are underway to extend the project to Lausanne.
Some professionals in the sector admit their scepticism: “How can we make sure that no bad information is conveyed”, “This type of event brings in a lot of people and all the better, but these visitors generally don’t come back; we can see this with the Night of the Museums”. The two Zurich initiatives are too young to know what impact they will have on long-term museum attendance. A pity!

The Van Gogh Museum, the most followed in the world

The institution has more than 4.6 million followers on Facebook. Recipes

Martijn Pronk, head of digital communication at the Van Gogh Museum, gave a much-appreciated lecture on Friday at the Unil. Above all, his statistics made the audience dream. On Facebook, the museum is followed by some 4.6 million subscribers, on Twitter by 1.6 million. Last year, the website of the Dutch institution received more than 4 million visitors. Martijn Pronk generously shared a few things.

Dating Club
“Social networks are a means to get in touch with future visitors, but not an end. They are too fragmented to tell a real story or give the idea of a collection. So the website remains indispensable. Social media are like a club where you can meet people while the web is your home, where you want to take the girl you meet to the club! So you have to have something to propose because the decision to follow you or not is made in seconds.”

“Many Internet users are aware of certain aspects of Vincent Van Gogh’s life: brotherly love, his depression, his tragic destiny… We must get in touch with them through these emotions. Many of our fans live in Mexico City. They love Van Gogh, but they don’t care about the museum. When a sponsor asks to be quoted on social networks, we have to put the brakes on because this content is off-putting to the public. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are very effective in building engagement. For example, we have created a Facebook group for people inspired by Van Gogh’s work. A Russian fan who recreated the Blue Room in Tel Aviv reached 64 million people!”

“On social networks, you have to be extremely responsive. When a question is asked, the answer must be immediate, pleasant and, if possible, multilingual.”

“A video leads to twice as many audience commitments as other content. So we invested in iPhone stabilizers and a studio. This makes it possible to tell stories dynamically. For example, we created a short film featuring the five curators of the five museums that have a version of the Sunflowers. That got us 6 million views.”

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