Virtual exhibitions, social networks: will the digital transformation of museums continue after the crisis?

March 2020, as France confines itself for the first time and “anesthetizes” its economy, a start-up of a new kind is officially launched. She does not yet fully appreciate the appropriateness of her approach, its adequacy with the times. Explor Visit has chosen the right niche.

This young company – which six people bring to life today, a little over a year later – offers museums to virtualize their collections to create 3D exhibitions, to be seen from their sofa, sometimes even live with a real guide-lecturer behind the screen. A project in the pipeline since 2018, but whose health crisis suddenly boosted activity.

“There was a real windfall effect, since for museums, the only way to exist during lockdowns was to be present online”, explains Jean-Thibaut Couvreur, development manager. “But this mission remains essential after the reopening, for the public who cannot return to the museum.” As proof, the team will continue to work in the coming months with around fifteen institutions of all sizes, from the Center des Monuments Nationaux to the Cité du Vin in Bordeaux.

Virtual tours therefore, but also unpublished videos and podcasts, lives and challenges on social networks … For several months, cultural sites have competed in imagination to continue to promote their collections, via digital channels outside the walls.

One way to preserve the link with the public for a sector suffocated by the epidemic. For example, the video format, already widespread for two to three years, has exploded thanks to the health crisis according to Audrey Defretin, doctor specializing in cultural and digital mediation: “The websites and social networks of museums have become true documentation portals in their own right, and no longer just communication tools on the physical collections of museums.”

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on TikTok

The trend is bound to be confirmed. Faced with the uncertainties surrounding the reopening, the teams continue to rely on digital technology: in addition to compensating for a limited reception capacity, anticipating a possible new closure of museums is imperative if by any chance the health situation deteriorates. A forced march which accelerates the mutation. According to Audrey Defretin, the crisis will have saved museums around five years in their digital race, even if estimates remain difficult to establish.

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A sign of this change, the change cannot be measured only in terms of the diversity of the offer offered online. “During the confinements, the museums sought much interactivity with their communities via social networks, with live shows, conferences on Zoom or even Do It Yourself, tutorials for creating works of art at home”, comments Pierre-Yves Lochon, founder and administrator of Click, French-speaking network of innovative museums and cultural venues and consultant specializing in innovation and heritage.

For example, the Quai Branly Museum offered Internet users the opportunity to make traditional Indian puppets from a pattern to print and cut. “The tone has changed, it is much more spontaneous and accessible than doctoral”, details the specialist. “We are desecrating the museum, and that has no reason to change in the coming months.”

Accessibility that even the most prestigious cultural sites aim for, with one objective in mind: to reach audiences distant from the cultural world, such as adolescents. the Castle of Versailles, which has already been offering numerous online resources for the past ten years, from around forty videos a year on YouTube to augmented reality reconstructions, has launched on TikTok last November. In six months, the institution has accumulated 230,000 subscribers.

The tone has changed, it is much more spontaneous and accessible than doctoral. The museum is being desecrated, and that has no reason to change in the months to come.– Pierre-Yves Lochon

“At a live on the application with a specialist of Louis XIV from the Hall of Mirrors, last December, users thought that the decor was a green background “, laughs Paul Chaine, head of the Digital Development department. “Our goal is for them to say to themselves: ‘The Palace of Versailles is interested in me, so I can allow myself to go’.” The soft underbelly of museum attendance is also the 15-35 year olds, recalls Pierre-Yves Lochon.

Keep in touch with those who still cannot (re) come to the museum

More broadly, after losing around 70 million euros in 2020, the Versailles institution still wishes to use the Internet to encourage the French public to (re) come to the site, which only represented 20% of admissions before the health crisis. But also keep in touch with those who still cannot come, even at the time of the reopening. Among them, international visitors, with whom the Palace of Versailles remains in touch via Chinese social networks in particular, such as the WeChat messaging application, for several years, or recently Douyin, the competitor of TikTok. In addition, the castle’s digital media are often bilingual. And half of the consultations come from abroad.

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The institutions also want to address people geographically distant from cultural centers – one in four French people in 2019, according to Jean-Thibaut Couvreur – or even so-called audiences. “prevented”, such as nursing home residents, prisoners or people with disabilities. “The offers are designed to be truly complementary between physical and virtual, in the form of a gateway rather than a competition”, constate Audrey Defretin.

Can all museums nevertheless afford to invest in digital tools? It all depends on the desired offer. The large institutions, which can allocate large sums to it, are getting ahead of the small museums: in Versailles, the digital pole has a budget of a few million euros, although this represents “a very small percentage” according to Paul Chaine on the some 100 million reserved for the site each year. The castle team could also consider monetizing some of its content in the future.

Other institutions have successfully taken the plunge, such as the Grand Palais, which offered paid online courses. “But this new economic model will never replace the offers in situ “, nuance Pierre-Yves Lochon.

Affordable but sometimes time-consuming solutions

This does not prevent access to digital devices from becoming more democratic, in particular through the digitization of collections at affordable prices. “At Explor Visit, our prices change according to the area, the degree of detail of the digitization and the desired content, but we can start at 3000 euros for a small museum of 1000 m²”, says Jean-Thibaut Couvreur. Trying to perpetuate a collection and multiply audiences, Judge Pierre-Yves Lochon, noting that a physical exhibition amounts to at least 50,000 euros.

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And that’s without counting on social networks, which make it possible to produce content at a lower cost. Solutions particularly useful in this period of “moderation” where museums are looking to cut spending. “What counts is more the inventiveness than the means.”

Demonstration from the Reims planetarium, a public institution founded 40 years ago, which for the first time tried lives Facebook in March 2020, before posting astrology instructional videos and tutorials to help with stargazing. “The pandemic was a real trigger”, emphasizes Baptiste Redon, director of the site. Content that benefits the museum’s faithful, but also a few international users, in Egypt or India, to the great surprise of the team. If three-quarters of its 40,000 annual “physical” visitors were lost in 2020, almost as many people have already viewed one of its videos in the past year, if only for a few seconds.

Again, the costs are minimal. To publish about three capsules and one live per week, everything was done internally for a few thousand euros, mobilizing two full-time equivalents out of its eight members in the team. “We are training more and more internally”, analysis Audrey Defretin. “The digital professions will really be highlighted in the years to come, in particular among young graduates.

Still, this production rate has been difficult to maintain since the reopening of May 19, which is concentrating the efforts of the teams. “We are forced to downsize on digital, but obviously, we hope to develop further in the coming months, especially on other platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat”, indicates the director of the Planetarium. Next meeting organized by the museum: a conference on the solar eclipse on June 10, live on YouTube.

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