Let’s Talk About: The Online Museum

And just like that, everyone I know find themselves looking for new forms of entertainment. Everything stable, the things we took for granted, have all been thrown off-course. Galleries and museums count in this; we know they’re always there, available to visit when the mood strikes. So it’s no surprise they’re featuring fairly heavily in many of the suggestions for sofa-based activities being shared over my timelines. We suddenly realise that we miss the opportunity for escapism, from the other day.

In contrast to the inertia of lockdown, many of these articles appeal to that nagging voice in the back of your mind that you could be using this time as an opportunity. And clickbaity headlines like “10 Museum Tours You NEED To Take From Your Sofa” make it sound easy. Discover new worlds in a few clicks.

The Vatican virtual tour

I’ve taken quite a few of these tours, out of a professional(-ish) curiosity to see how they’re managed. Mostly from the most famous museums of the world – because they’re the ones getting linked in these articles and if anyone’s got the funds to nail this it should be them, right? But from what I’ve seen, I’ve got the feeling that some of these institutions have treated the online collections offer as a box-ticking exercise. Something they’re doing to impress funders, to be able to point to something (anything) as proving “digital engagement”.

I suspect that some of these museums have too much ego for their own good. I feel like they’ve got this assumption in the back of their minds that if their online offer is too good, people won’t come to the actual building. Never mind audiences with access issues, then – until right now when we suddenly all have access issues. Tied to this, I also think there’s a thrall to the supremacy of the object. And I get that there is undeniably a different sense of awe when you’re standing and looking at an actual object rather than a reproduction image. If I’m standing in front of a 6000-year-old necklace I get a completely different sense of amazement that the thing exists. That a person 6000 years ago created it, that it’s an actual object which has been worn by perhaps countless people, that it has a full story which has somehow wound up here (to date). BUT just because I get it doesn’t mean that I respect it in this context. Any museum thinking this way – and to be clear I don’t know if they do, just suspect it in some – fundamentally misunderstands what the online offer is for. I seriously question whether some institutions have had a proper conversation around what they want their online offers to achieve before they started.

This is particularly evident in some of the virtual walk-through tours. When they’re good, they can be really good. The Vatican has some lovely examples of this. The walk into the Sistine Chapel and ability to zoom into the details actually work. It’s not going to replace being there, but if you can’t get there you can at least understand the space – where things are, how the visual story unfolds. Sadly I’ve found too many of them are just indulgent tripe which I reckon only exist because a smooth salesperson gave them a pitch about the “exciting possibilities of our technology” and the museum team forgot that there should be a purpose for visitors too. My most shocking examples are:

The Louvre

The Louvre: Never mind it covers limited rooms – if done well, it wouldn’t matter. This is not. This picture is literally the closest you get to any of the objects. There are a few which are explored in more detail, but good luck finding which ones. It’s like a video game where you wave your mouse around until a little square box comes up on the thing you’re meant to choose, and even then it’s not in detail.

The Met

The Met: God, I hate this so much. Who thought that these YouTube videos were a good idea? Being able to move 360ยบ is such a limited gimmick because you then want all the other things that come with that, like being able to get closer to particular objects, but trying that just breaks the video. So instead these replicate the feeling of being rushed through a tour with a bad guide who’s running late on a Friday afternoon on which they’re feeling particularly stressed about just wanting this to be over. I don’t learn a single thing.

These examples are bad for the same reason: they see the purpose of the museum tour as being inside their museums. Unlike The Vatican, where the rooms are the exhibits, visitors in France and New York haven’t come to see these spaces, but the objects inside them. People want stories, and both of these tours fail because they just don’t tell one.

The best museums in the online realm aren’t automatically the biggest or most famous, but rather the most generous. Those who understand that storytelling is at the heart of what they do, and have found ways to do this. This doesn’t need a fancy website, really – I’ve seen some galleries making a valiant effort on Instagram in the last few weeks. But for institutions with the resources, making collections accessible is not the same as just putting a catalogue online which only works for those who know precisely what they want to see*.

Rather, look at The Women of Nasa, by the National Women’s History Museum in the USA. Or this introduction to Yoo Youngluck, an artist I’d never heard of but whose works I can get to know in an impressive amount of detail. These are what I had in mind when I thought about looking at an online museum – actual exhibitions where I can appreciate and learn. Because they’re not hiding their specific knowledge behind paywalls or low pixelations, I like these places more. If they weren’t so far-flung they’d get on get on my radar for future engagement when lockdown is over. But even with distance making that difficult, I still feel I know a bit about what these institutions are about.

I’ve seen a lot of these tours being mostly shared by my non-art-world connections, which makes realise how much the idea of “12 MUST-SEE Museum Tours You Can Take From Your Couch” (or whatever) is reaching people right now. Museums do have an opportunity here – not to capitalise financially, but to reach out socially in a way they might never have done before. I therefore hope that some institutions are waking up to the fact that their content is more of an ego trip than it is fit for purpose. To work online is different to the real world, and no matter who they are museums need to ask questions about what best serves visitors in ways which aren’t steeped in a sense of intrinsic institutional importance.

*Though if they’re gonna do this they could do worse than check out the Rijksmuseum, who have a cute feature where they’ve saved visitors tours so you can see what people who have visited the museum like. It’s a cute way of opening out the catalogue to interpretation.