Should I Stay or Should I Go?Contemplating the Longevity of Virtual Museums and At-Home Programming
Museums have always provided opportunities for culture and education to their communities, with many prioritizing involvement with students and others yearning to learn. Since March 2020, museums have adapted to a new socially-distant world, one forcing them to change the way they reach and engage their audiences. Many organizations turned to social media and other digital platforms, shifting from a primarily physical environment and in-person experience to a digital and distant one.
Before 2020, museums and other GLAM organizations were integrating various technologies – including virtual and digital experiences – into their in-person exhibitions and programming. With the COVID-19 pandemic putting the brick-and-mortar museum experience on pause, museums needed to move beyond traditional in-person programming. The implementation of online virtual programming met the needs of museum audiences in the isolated comfort of their own homes. Some of these programs include virtual tours and field trips, social media challenges, live streams, video tutorials and much more!
With increasing vaccinations and decreasing case numbers, a post-pandemic world appears to be drawing closer. Currently, museums and other GLAM organizations are beginning to reopen and welcome back visitors. This begs the question: What does the future holds for these new virtual at-home programs?
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It is difficult to imagine museums and GLAM organizations fully abandoning virtual at-home programming for several reasons, the first being the uncertainty of the pandemic. Secondly, organizations have spent over a year investing and redistributing staff and resources to provide a variety of virtual offerings and experiences. It would be foolish to completely abandon this financial, and probably labour intensive, investment. Thirdly, virtual programs allow for numerous benefits including access and interaction with fragile objects not suited for display and the ability to reach a wider geographical audience. People have the ability to participate in virtual programs in cities, provinces and countries other than their own.
In early 2019 (well before the COVID-19 pandemic), Carly Straughan discussed the potential of virtual museums in her article titled, “Is the future of museums online and what might a virtual museum look like?”. After over 18 months locked away from the physical museum space, people are eager to go out and visit museums again. Could the reopening and the surge of in-person visitors threaten the longevity of virtual museums? With the ability to host in-person visitors, museums may be inclined to decrease or stop producing and providing at-home virtual programming for operational and financial needs. Museums and GLAM industries rely heavily on support through fundraising during social events, so, it is no surprise to learn that the museum and GLAM industry has taken a large financial hit after being closed for nearly 18 months. Angel Adegbesan’s article “Reopened Museums Lean Into Local Tourism Boom” reveals that visitors and museums are both ready to abandon the remote museum experience and renter the physical museum world. In-person visitors spend more money on entrance tickets and merchandise than at-home visitors, where an abundance of virtual programming is free or available at a lower cost. Reopening the physical museum could shift the operational needs of museums, supporting the needs of in-person visitors. With revenue a main motivating factor for most organizations, in-person visitors and programming will likely move the focus of museums away from the virtual world.
Crowds in Vatican Museum. Source: Michal Osmenda It is hard to imagine that museums and other organizations may abandon virtual at-home programs partially or fully, but with the increase of in-person visitors, available resources and staff will need to be redistributed to accommodate both virtual and in-person visitors. Trying to balance these two spheres of audiences may be a difficult challenge for museums. However, as the last 18 months have taught us, if we can persevere, we are more capable than we think. What are your views on the longevity of virtual museums and at-home programming?