Museums and galleries improve online accessibility as lockdown continues

As the British Museum updates its online collection, we take a look at museum and gallery resources from virtual tours to augmented reality.

“People come to museums when they’re looking for permanence, and it’s a very uncertain time at the moment,” Michael Tame says. “When you see something that’s 2,000 years old, you think ‘actually we’ve been around for a while’.”

Tame is a digital is a digital programme manager at the British Museum. This week, the museum launched a revamp of its online collections, which is billed as “one of the most expansive online museum collection databases from any global museum.” The project’s been in development for around 18 months, but has been brought forwards in light of the continued lockdown.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

Some 4 million objects are available to see online, including 1.9 million photographs. There’s a new interface, which is responsive on mobiles and tablets for the first time (though Tame says it’s still more popular on desktop). Object records have been expanded into the Chinese language, a nod to the museum’s global popularity, and there is a new function to ‘deep zoom’ which provides “new levels of details on key objects”.

Learning from websites Google and Amazon, the museum’s created more “intuitive” filters, Tame says. The site’s been developed by Leeds-based Numiko and the data integration has been done by Knowledge Integration, based in Sheffield. Tame explains that there are two model users for the online collection; researchers who know what they’re looking for, and someone more casual like a primary school teacher who might want images on mummies (Egypt is the museum’s most popular search term). The new interface is geared to making both those jobs easier.

A lockdown spike

Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

During continued lockdown, a third type of visitor has been created: one seeking comfort or distraction. From viewing figures, the museum saw the usage from specific locations increased exponentially as countries went into lockdown. For several weeks, more people visited the website from Italy than anywhere else in the world. Spain was a close second. Currently, there are themes such as Death and Memory, which features ghostbusting in Mesopotamia and Desire, Love and Identity which “offers glimpses into LGBTQ lives” through objects like badges and porcelain tea cups.

While these have been around before the revamp, Tame hopes that the update – which has brought the collection up to date – might “unlock” more opportunities to create these sorts of collections more quickly. He suggests how a collection could be themed around cooking items, or news-worthy themes like sickness.

Museums from Home

The British Museum is not the only cultural institution updating for the times. Exhibitions that had been opened before lockdown, or were due to open during lockdown, are having to adapt speedily. Tate Modern released online tours of its Andy Warhol and Aubrey Beardsley exhibitions. The National Portrait Gallery has made its BP Portrait Prize Award 2020 online; the virtual exhibition opens 5 May. All 48 works will be displayed in a “virtual gallery space that replicates the rooms” of the London gallery.

As part of its digital initiative, the Royal Academy has made a 38-minute film of its exhibition Picasso and Paper available online. It features curator commentary, something made more possible by virtual tours. For its exhibition on Belgian artist Leon Spilliaert, the academy has launched a “pioneering TV-style ‘slow-looking’ virtual tour of the galleries” where the exhibition is displayed. The 25-minute video has been viewed by over 50,000 people.

Compton Verney House’s #MuseumsFromHome project

The BBC’s nationwide campaign #MuseumsfromHome has prompted institutions to inventively display their exhibitions to new audiences. At Warwickshire’s Compton Verney House, the in-house exhibitions team has shifted its focus to digital during lockdown, Julie Finch, the institution’s director tells Design Week. As well as a virtual tour for its exhibition Cranach: Artist & Innovator, it is launching 12 short films for the BBC’s campaign on its exhibition Fabric: Touch & Identity. Available April 30, Finch says that it was an opportunity to create material that is relevant to modern-day issues such as sexuality. It also means that that the content is more “digestible”.

Finch says that the lockdown has catalysed their approach to digital. How digital spaces for art, and the ways in which virtual exhibitions are designed, is new territory for many institutions.

2,000 museums at your fingertips

In some cases, virtual visits are being provided by Google. Its Art and Culture division has made 2,000 museums available, from over 80 countries. You can also visit the galleries with a soundtrack of classical music. France’s Palace of Versailles, London’s National Gallery, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are among the destinations you can access.

Each gallery is divided into ‘stories’ (which are online exhibitions), ‘collections’ (such as different periods of art, or artistic movements) as well as individual pieces of art. For some, virtual tours are available in the style of Google Maps. You can walk around Florence’s Uffizi gallery, Italy’s most-visited museum which has over 100 viewing rooms.

Google’s 360 degree virtual reality tours are particularly immersive. You can go face to face with the Giraffatitan dinosaur skeleton, and watch its animation move around the museum hall at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde. You can also learn about Rhomaleosaurus Sea Dragon at London’s natural history museum, or take a tour through the history of the little black dress at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Augmented artwork

Acute Art, the augmented reality platform, launched a new app in March which puts users in the position of curator. The app has been developed in-house at the company. It was launched with American artist and designer KAWS, and uses the phone camera to ‘place’ virtual installations in your surroundings. It’s an evolution from the previous experience, where users were guided through a virtual reality installation, rather than mixing art with their real life surroundings. In the past, the company has collaborated with Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic and Ai Weiwei and it has more collaborations planed in the future.

The banner image is from the British Museum’s online collection, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

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