by Zachary Marschall // BRUSHSTROKES
University of Kentucky
Zachary Marschall is an associate editor at Arts & International Affairs, having previously served as the journal’s first managing editor from 2015 to 2017. In conjunction with the latter position, he was a coordinator for the 2017 Global Cultural Fellows program at the Institute for International Cultural Relations (IICR), University of Edinburgh. Previous positions include publishing and program development roles at the Policy Studies Organization.
Currently, Zachary teaches cultural policy at the University of Kentucky and he recently edited the forthcoming (2021) book Washi Transformed: New Expressions in Japanese Paper (Scala Arts Publishers, Inc.). He is also the publications manager at International Arts & Artists, a nonprofit organization that serves museums and global practitioners.
Zachary holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from George Mason University.
In June 2020, Kate Brown announced in Artnet News the likely end of the blockbuster exhibition at international art museums. The development results from institutions closing during the global COVID-19 outbreak; large groups and high attendance rates are necessary conditions to make blockbuster exhibitions profitable, but these are not achievable during the pandemic (Brown, 2020). More significantly, Brown (2020) posits the notion that museums’ abandonment of the blockbuster exhibition model is endemic of a cultural reversion from globalization at a time when closed borders, an effective precaution against COVID-19, reassert national and regional identities in transnational cultural politics. Fourteen months prior to the publication of Brown’s article, I defended my PhD dissertation, which argued for a renewed localization of cultural politics among American and British museum and cultural policy stakeholders to revert unsustainable growth trends in the institution, particularly the blockbuster exhibition. Now, during the middle of the pandemic, museum closures have impelled the institution to confront old assumptions and growth strategies faster than my project ever anticipated.
This article builds on evidence from my dissertation and incorporates additional research to assess how international art museums use digital technologies to move forward from the pandemic, however nebulous and unpredictable that timeline still appears to be during the initial weeks of the worldwide Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine distribution in late 2020. Prior to the current virus, cultural institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate had been pursuing digital strategies to make collections and outreach more accessible through online databases and interactive gallery experiences (via Facebook and Instagram), respectively (Marschall 2019). COVID-19 has both accelerated and deepened museums’ activities in the virtual space (Samaroudi et al. 2020) as online curation and social media engagement become even more ubiquitous. These example activities include the Museum of Modern Art’s hashtag campaigns on Twitter, virtual tours from the Louvre, and interactive AR/VR offerings through the British Museum (Ciecko 2020).
The decrease in global cultural (heritage) tourism poses one of the gravest threats to museums’ viability as site-specific cultural institutions. Although blockbuster exhibitions’ unsustainability makes them problematic, the resulting revenue can enrich museums’ local communities through the production of cultural value and inclusive distribution of resources, which can subsequently sustain the institution’s longevity (Marschall 2019). This potentially lost benefit during and after COVID-19 underlies Brown’s (2020) prospective eulogy. Currently, the nature of social distancing restrictions makes the digitization of museums’ exhibitions, programming, and services an attractive alternative to maintain engagement with immobilized audiences. For example, Samaroudi et al.’s (2020) survey of American and British heritage institutions, which include museums, shows that “communication” (including social media postings and announcements) were the most popular digital offerings provided in 2020. This emphasis on digital engagement strongly suggests that raw numbers of followers, likes, and re-postings will become more cemented as a benchmark of and vehicle for assessing value and pursuing growth strategies. While it is practical for museums to execute digital outreach to maintain relevance, the current trajectory during the pandemic reveals that technological platforms have become the object of an integralist faith in progress by digitalization within the institution. Museums’ digital engagement, which Brendan Ciecko (2020) points out can be realized from the would-be visitor’s couch, disembodies the museum from its local community and further disassociates the “visitor” from the gallery, which is a necessary (though not sufficient) component for the institution’s value production. As a result, the museum’s inclusive orientation to the local or regional, as an even more timely means for long-term sustainable development according to Brown’s (2020) analysis, cannot be advanced by technological platforms when that mediation does not facilitate the affective responses or cultural identities that keep the institution viably engaged with tourists and locals alike.
As of this writing in August 2020, many museums have re-opened in limited capacities, having invested more in pre-existing digital strategies that aim to increase inclusion and attendance. However, the hope placed in digital technologies assumes that the tools’ effect on cultural production is transferable to the traditional museum experience. Using Parker et al.’s (2016) definition of a digital platform, I argue that platforms’ disruptive success in the creative industries are not replicated in museums because the cultural institution’s appeal is not subject to the same behavior patterns and disruptions in cultural producer-consumer relationships. Museums’ effective utilization of digital tools and platforms depends on an acknowledgement that these technologies operate differently between creative industries and the nonprofit sector. Neither innovation nor global tourism is mutually exclusive to engagement with sub-national cultural identities. Yet in the museum, digital technologies perpetuate, but do not change fundamentally, visitors’ engagement and participation patterns. By not acknowledging that dynamic, museums may face barriers to sustainable growth as global cultural tourism regenerates in a post-COVID-19 world.
Museums during COVID-19: Cultural Tourism and Digital Technologies
COVID-19 emerged in China in late 2019 and had spread across the globe by early 2020. By spring 2020, more than 90 percent of museums had temporarily closed worldwide with approximately 10 percent predicted not to re-open again (ICOM 2020; UNESCO 2020a). These shutdowns have contributed to an estimated 75 percent decrease in international cultural tourism (UNESCO 2020a). This downward trend has led museums to digitize further their collections, programming, exhibitions, and services, as an alternative form of engagement from the in-person museum experience (ICOM 2020; Princeton University 2020). In analyzing Italian state museum digital activities during the pandemic, Agostino et al. (2020) demonstrate how the acceleration of digitization during the pandemic has intensified platforms’ integrality in the cultural institution’s long-term digital strategies. Agostino et al. (2020) write:
Before their enforced closure, museums used social media platforms mainly for communication purposes to promote events and initiatives that would take place in the real world… Lockdown has caused social media to take over from the museums’ own websites and become a tool for spreading information, proposing live streaming, interviews and sharing artwork created through online means. For this reason, we can talk of social media as being a tool necessary to access cultural material. (370)
Italian state museums are subject to their status as public institutions in a particular country, but the pattern is reasonably applicable worldwide. Although COVID-19 has compounded institutional inequalities between museums in the Global North and Global South, international museum administrators are able to privilege the digitization of the arts (exhibitions, programming, engagement) because the pandemic has not posed a risk to museum buildings or their physical collections (ICOM 2020; UN News 2020); both components are needed to conserve, photograph, and virtually curate the artworks. Consequently, there is a newly invigorated global trend among museums to increase their effort to curate online exhibitions, engage potential visitors through social media platforms, and offer more sophisticated applications for future in-person visits.
Counterintuitively, these digital advancements, which sound revolutionary, risk inertia in museum growth. Curation and engagement via digital platforms are not creating new audiences or encouraging growth because these technologies do not change the behavior of actual and potential museum visitors. McMillen et al.’s (2017) survey research demonstrate that this problem is not new to 2020, or the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. McMillen et al. (2017) write:
Participants identified art museum’s social media platforms solely as a medium for advertising and to promote an exhibition, not as a method to connect with the museum or include them personally. In other words, art museums’ social media platforms were not successful at all. (121)
These results exemplify a trend among museum stakeholders to collapse two distinct objectives in their push for digital engagement in the museum experience. The first objective is to make museums more inclusive and accessible to those that already have interest in visiting the institution. For example, research shows that there is sustained robust interest in the traditional museum experience among disabled populations that need technology to make the experience more accessible (McMillen et al. 2017). The second objective is to get more people interested in art museums and expand the visitor base by creating new audiences. Pursuit of the second goal, to attract different groups as first-time visitors, subsumes the first objective in digital-based growth strategies (Marschall 2019). Consequently, the converged effort to change people’s attitudes and behaviors toward the museum masks the disconnect between how digital platforms function and the museum’s expectations for user behavior among regular, infrequent, and prospective visitors.
Visitors tend to perceive mobile applications in museum spaces as informative tools that substitute traditional modes of information (i.e., brochure) and museum websites as instruments to plan trips to the institution (Walsh et al. 2020; Wilson-Barnao 2018). According to Walsh et al. (2020), a majority of museum websites experience extremely brief user journeys; approximately 10 seconds is spent on just a couple of webpages. Consequently, digital technologies function as complementary to the in-person museum visit because “algorithmic technologies” do not diminish the desire for a physical museum experience (Wilson-Barnao 2018:103). Website visits – both their short duration and purpose – demonstrate that the turn to the digital has not altered fundamentally a collective desire for the traditional museum experience.
Although museums exist in market economies and engage in transactional relationships (gift stores, restaurants, etc.), the institution has an origin and ontology extraterritorial to cultural production, which explains why websites and platforms only substitute older methods for conveying information. This rationale is perhaps best articulated in Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets are Transforming the Economy and How to Make Them Work for You. Parker et al. (2016) argue that a platform derives its capacity to transform user behavior from its role as a mediator between producers and consumers. The museum is not a producer, but rather an institutional steward charged with the preservation, display, and conservation of cultural expressions (Barzun 1989). Furthermore, museum visitors cannot be described accurately as consumers. In the United States and the United Kingdom, visitors’ predominant motivations for attending museums – broadly, the acquisition of knowledge or the experience of inspiration (DCMS 2017b; NEA 2015) – feed into the affective response from proximity to art in the gallery, which cannot be replicated virtually (Gerrard et al. 2017).The affective response that visitors experience in proximity to artworks functions as one of the driving appeals of the traditional museum experience. Arguably, this appeal accounts for why personalization was a felt absence in McMillen and Alter’s (2017) findings.
Within the cultural sector, only creative industries bear witness to platforms’ transformative results. George Yúdice (2018) demonstrates how streaming platforms such as YouTube and Spotify have changed music listeners from “collectors” (buying CDs or downloading albums) to subscribers (385). In the creative industries, businesses can effectively and profitably leverage transformative platforms and other digital technologies because such tools “facilitate the expression of affect” (Yúdice 2018:387) in a political economy of cultural production that valorizes personalization, which is deployed and utilized by cultural producers, consumers, and prosumers in participatory cultural experiences (Valtysson 2010; Yúdice 2018). There is a problematic assumption underlying the promise of digital technology in the museum experience: that what the digital platforms have done for enterprise can also help the museum create new audiences and generate new revenue. Wilson-Barnao (2018) captures this assumption by stating that cultural institutions, particularly museums, “have begun to operate within a framework where technology is used to make presuppositions about the way people think and feel about cultural artifacts” (106). In pursuing new audiences and revenue through digital offerings, museums are not considering the persistent motivations for attending the institution and how the capacity for change embedded in the platform is realized only in specific producer-consumer relationships. Visitors’ expectations for the delivery of information and services adapt to new available technology, but they do not depart from the traditional in-person museum experience in the same revolutionary way that a platform such as Spotify has done to the recording industry.
Additionally, it is vital to recognize that any digital-based solution to museums’ post-COVID-19 situation will not have equal outcomes worldwide. For example, the share of museums without any staff designated for digital activities in African (31%) and Arab (30%) countries is twice that of European museums (15%) (ICOM 2020). There is already grave inequality between the number of museums and infrastructural support for their institutions’ digital operations between institutions in the Global North and South (UNESCO 2020a). No matter the success of a digital strategy, it is unlikely to help international art museums equitably across geopolitical regions.
However, museums’ digital strategies are effective when they mediate audiences’ engagement with national, regional, and local identities (Marschall 2019). Participation in these identities motivates attendance at cultural events and institutions, of which the museum is one example (Basu et al. 2015; Lumley 2004). In its report earlier this year, UNESCO (2020a) captures what is lost, culturally, during the pandemic:
“Confined populations, unable to share and celebrate their heritage – notably intangible cultural heritage – have suffered the loss of fundamental and structuring cultural elements of their daily social and individual lives” (4).
The current restrictions on global cultural tourism, which J.P. Singh (2011:128) argues is “about understanding ourselves in different places,” makes it imperative for governments and institutions to locate alternative methods for facilitating populations’ engagements with their identities. For example, during UNESCO’s virtual “Online Meeting of Ministers of Culture” in April 2020, Patrick Jason Faber, Belize’s Minister of Education, Youth, Sports and Culture, stated that disseminating “knowledge of our living heritage remains at the heart of the experience of populations during the crisis” and was a priority for the government (UNESCO 2020b, 12). The preservation of tangible and intangible heritage is important for maintaining an intergenerational sense of national identity, but it also drives the cultural sector economically. Much of the issues museums face in late 2020 result from evaporated cultural tourism. During the same meeting, an Italian official said:
“The cessation of tourism weakens the conservation of cultural sites by drastically affecting maintenance budgets, which are directly linked to tourism revenues, and raises questions about the economic futures of museums and cultural institutions” (UNESCO 2020b:5).
The direct connection between cultural tourism and cultural institutions’ vitality raises the stakes for museums to deploy digital platforms in an efficacious manner. But as museums work with private and public partners to revive global cultural tourism as institutions gradually reopen across the world, it is imperative that these stakeholders remember that, in the promotion of curated cultural heritage, the role of digital technology is primarily informative, not revolutionary.
Although visitors with access to the internet often use museum websites to plan their physical trips to the institution, the in-person experience remains central to the museum experience. Walsh et al. (2020:76) write that “engagement with cultural heritage is no longer just about the physical visit, but rather the entire visitor experience starts online before the actual visit and ends after the visit has taken place.” Cultural heritage participation does occupy digital spaces, but those media are in the service of the in-person experience, where the personal and affective response can be felt. The behavioral pattern that Walsh et al. (2020) describe does not disrupt museums’ demographic patterns, fueling critiques of the institution as by and for cultural elites. Interestingly, Marisa Enhuber (2015) reveals that for all of the Tate’s digitization efforts, its user base is characteristically still more educated than the broader population. This is not to say that digitization efforts are not a worthwhile pursuit. Museum websites are an invaluable tool for academics and professionals, as well as for general non-scholarly audiences that seek an efficient method for acquiring new knowledge (Walsh et al. 2020). Consequently, it behooves museums to scrutinize the alignment between the function of digital technologies and their mission to isolate the best approaches for new media utilization post-COVID-19.
For example, gaming technologies present one opportunity for museums to make a transformative impact on visitors’ behavior. According to Ćosovic et al. (2019), gaming-based digital platforms and tools have the potential to change visitors’ learning habits in the museum experience, particularly among those younger audiences still in school. Moreover, gaming in the museum does not have to be high-tech. For example, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) uses game-based teaching approaches that target children. The DIA uses “Play Eye Spy!” installations at children’s eye level, asking younger visitors to find specific objects in various paintings in the gallery rooms. This technique, albeit low-tech, personalizes the museum experience for each child while encouraging the cultivation of ideal practices (careful observation and appreciation of detail in fine art) that can be replicated later in life as regular, engaged attendees (Marschall 2019). Furthermore, gaming is interactive – a departure from the informative experience of reading from a didactic exhibition panel, in-gallery computer station, or webpage. Gaming also creates opportunity for a kind of personalization – one characterized by the affective response to completion of trivia- or task-based prompts – that can transcend its appeal in creative industries and the services sector.
Gaming-based digital tools are one approach museums can pursue further in conjunction with social media, digitization, and online exhibitions. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported in August that institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum were pursuing their collections’ digitized inclusion in Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” series as a strategic pivot from sluggish web traffic (Crow 2020). The successful implementation of any gaming technologies in the museum experience requires the acknowledgement that platforms take on an informative role when they are not in the service of cultural production. In the same vein that digital-based solutions privilege those museums in the Global North, there is a limitation on the extent to which digital technologies can transpose in-person experiences at cultural institutions.
In the pandemic’s first months, both the Rijksmuseum and the J. Paul Getty Museum challenged audiences to recreate famous paintings from their homes and post side-by-side images on social media accounts (Nalewicki 2020). The popularity of that effort demonstrates that platforms can kindle engagement among core audiences, but it is unclear if that campaign expanded the institutions’ visitor bases. Furthermore, there is no evidence this trend would have been as viral had museums not been shut down during the pandemic’s first global wave.
Gaming’s potential evinces the limitation of digital technologies in the museum experience. In the museum, gaming technologies are effective when targeted to younger, school-aged visitors (Ćosovic et al. 2019). However, these tools attend to the cultivation of traditional visitor habits during adulthood. Technology-driven disruption, as fueled by changed user behavior (Parker et al. 2016), is absent in the museum because platforms are a substitutive method of dissemination that do not fundamentally alter how visitors seek to engage with art at a site-specific cultural institution.
 Specifically, my dissertation comprised external surveys and four museum case studies: Tate, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, and the Wedgwood Museum.
 This article was drafted prior to the second global wave of COVID-19 and updated in December 2020 to incorporate new developments. The second wave started roughly in early autumn 2020. The pattern of museum closures during this wave resists general characterization because nations and sub-national regions have experienced the waves differently, resulting in an uneven distribution of restrictions on venues. For example, in the District of Columbia, the National Gallery of Art closed in November 2020 after briefly re-opening in late summer, while the Pérez Art Museum Miami, in Florida, is open as of December 2020 and using a timed ticket system to limit foot traffic. The second-wave re-closing of museums is perhaps more consistent in Western Europe, as museums in Belgium, France, and Germany were forced to shut down again in November 2020 by government authorities (Hickley 2020).
 However, the concept of a cultural consumer is applicable to some museum operations outside of the gallery spaces.
 Interestingly, the website Museum Hack published Google Trends data in April 2020, showing that audiences quickly lost interest their in virtual tours. Google searches for more personalized, and not informative, experiences increased around the same time. The article can be accessed through: https://museumhack.com/virtual-museum-tour-trends/.
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