5 ways museums and galleries can embrace digital

Way back in April, in the midst of lockdown, we spoke with the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) as they were questioning how to adapt this year’s Summer Exhibition for reduced visitor numbers. We responded by hypothesizing five digital approaches that would enhance the overall experience. The approaches are rooted in an understanding of how people behave in digital experiences. We feel they’re relevant not only to the RA but other museums and galleries alike who are asking similar questions.

“Clicking through to a page of thumbnails that simply link to hi-res artwork images doesn’t feel like an event. [For many museums] digitization of gallery spaces has been something of a sideshow, part of accessibility and outreach schemes, rather than a serious venue for the appreciation of art.” — Peter Maxwell, Frame

More often than not, digital arts experiences are confined to mere facsimiles of the physical experience. We hold the view that digital can enhance the art experience. For a variety of reasons, mainly lack of funding, digital is often sidelined as a promotional and sales tool. For reasons beyond the RA’s control, we weren’t able to fully explore the following approaches. However, we did collaborate with their internal teams to improve the Summer Exhibition Explorer, which went live as the exhibition opened this October.

1. Democratise Curation

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The internet is full of curation; Pinterest boards, Instagram feeds. Typically, curation for shows is done by experts who have the knowledge and taste to decide what is good. The physical realm must continue to be concerned with a whole host of variables and constraints (lending works, hanging them, tell the story, etc.) Digital, in contrast, is more malleable and allows us to ask:

  • What does curation mean for art shows when we can now put it into the hands of others?
  • What if we provided viewers and potential buyers with personalised curation, just for them?
  • What if viewers could curate their own collections and share them with friends?
  • What does Instagramming a work look like if they can photograph it in person?

2. Bridge the divide

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Now more than ever, we have become accustomed to two worlds, the digital and physical co-existing on an almost equal plane. In the context of a physical event, how might we reveal the presence of both worlds to each other?

  • How might represent digital viewers in the physical space;
  • How might we facilitate interactions between all viewers; digital and physical.
  • How we could create a sense of occasion and through being able to ‘see’ all the viewers; remember 90s chat rooms when you could see people entering and leaving the room? Exciting, wasn’t it.

3. Play with time

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Buyer days and Preview events, great mechanisms that increase buyers’ propensity to buy. In marketing terms this is the basics: make it exclusive, build anticipation, manufacture scarcity. Sounds a bit ‘icky’ but it’s necessary to ensure galleries get the big sales that keep them going. What can we learn from years of executing this in the physical world and what analogous experiences might teach us something about how to do it digitally?

When it comes to sales the art world seems only concerned with the start of an event. But if we look at retail sales they have a much more complex process which generally includes:

  1. Sale opening
  2. New lines added to the sale
  3. Further reductions
  4. Sale ending soon

Each one is perfectly timed to give the retailer more opportunities to entice buyers. The same tactic can be applied to art shows in the digital realm and it needn’t be in the pursuit of sales.

4. Embrace the multi-experience

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The physical is represented by layers of experience. Multiple visits, moving through many rooms, and standing in front of individual works.

You could directly copy that in digital to create ‘one digital experience’ but you’d miss a whole range of possibilities that can’t be easily contained in one experience. How might we play on different experiential paradigms?

  • What if we put sculpture in people’s living rooms with AR?
  • What if we staged sitting events where groups stared at a single image for 10 minutes?
  • What would a series of mini live virtual tours look like?

5. Go borderless

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When a show embraces digital it is no longer confined to the constraints of physical space and location. The ability to reach an international audience raises new questions.

  • What does an experience for the Japanese market look like? Is it different? The same? Does it go online in their time? Are prices in their currency?
  • How do we create the feeling of a global event?
  • Could we represent the popularity of works beyond the ‘red sales dot’.

Want to make these ideas happen?

I run Same, a digital studio working with the arts and culture. If this post got you thinking then I’d love to talk with you more. Connect with me on Linked In, Follow me on Twitter or drop me an email.

Written by

Creative Partner at Same. We help purpose-led organisations make digital products that matter. https://www.projectsbysame.com

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