Precautions, closures, and regulations related to the coronavirus epidemic have forced museums globally to radically renew their public relations and professional work in their online spaces. Due to several "state of emergency" periods since March 2020, the closed institutions have turned to social media with unprecedented creativity, launched online programs, guided tours, created virtual exhibitions, videos, streamed museum events and built a virtual community in the online space. The digital databases and catalogues of works of art, and related applications which have been growing on the Internet for decades, have suddenly come in the forefront, and they have been widely discovered by the public after leaving the professional circle they have been in before. Cultural institutions were given a new role in the suddenly closed world, they had to thematize public discourse unrelated to the pandemic, open a window to the world with high quality and diverse content, provide comfort, relaxation, recreation, and communal experiences to societies that had never been in such a situation before. How did this work out? How much have people's attitudes towards culture, the arts, and in our case, museums changed? How does Hungarian society evaluate the online performance of museums during a pandemic? Which social strata were most interested in this content?
Between January 8 and January 24, 2021, I launched an online questionnaire survey with 1006 participants, covering Hungary to find answers to these questions, entitled Online Museum Content Under Covid-19. The research report, illustrated with a number of graphs, can be downloaded in its entirety from this link.
The majority of the questionnaire was completed by women (67%). In terms of age, 23.7 percent of respondents were in their forties, 18.5 percent in their fifties, 16.2 percent in their sixties, 16.8 percent in their thirties, 10.3 percent in their twenties and 8.5 percent in their seventies. Surprisingly, 7.9 percent of those who completed the questionnaire were under the age of twenty, and even eleven were over the age of eighty. Half of the respondents indicated the capital as their place of residence, a quarter of them live in the city, 12.6 per cent live in the county seat, 10.7 per cent indicated a smaller settlement.
Similarly, the educational qualification rate does not reflect the country’s demographics but is close to the composition of museum visitors. 63.9 percent are graduates, 8.7 percent have an academic degree, 17.2 percent have a high school diploma and 2.8 percent have a vocational qualification. The majority of the 8.7 percent with only primary school diplomas were the younger respondents, under 18. It can be stated that the questionnaire was filled in by those who are interested in cultural areas, or it is important to indicate this in terms of their self-image. According to the respondents, 92 percent of the residents of Budapest, 89 percent of those living in the county seat, 83 percent of urban residents and 85 percent of those living in smaller settlements go to a museum at least once a year, unless they are restricted by a pandemic. Only 15.8 percent of respondents worked in a museum when completing the questionnaire. 50.5 percent of the respondents have never been employed by such an institution before, 11.2 percent have worked before in these institutions and the job of 17.6 percent is related to the area to a certain degree.
- - At the time of the restrictions, employees in home office, according to their own admissions, did not follow more museums on social media than in the past or than those who still went to their workplace.
- - It is worth for museums to pay special attention to people between 30 and 40 years of age, because the ranking of interests of this age group is very different from the others: they are the ones who prefer to read about scientific topics rather than cultural. In addition to people in their fifties, they are the ones who, in terms of proportions, were not only curious about going to a museum, but also curious about their online activities before of other cultural contents.
- - The willingness to visit museums is not related to the reading of online cultural content, the habits of museum visitors in the pre-pandemic period did not affect the degree of interest in the online museum content.
- - 7 percent of the informants had previously browsed the museums' websites and other web 2 interfaces and used their applications.
- - Before the pandemic, the Facebook posts of museums attracted the most informants (57%), followed by information related to museum visits (54.5%), and even then, many (43.7%) enjoyed viewing online exhibitions, galleries, collections databases (31%) and YouTube videos (29.1%). Among the population who stuck at home after the outbreak, this has changed dramatically. Although the number of Facebook posts remained in the leading position (58.4%) and even increased slightly, the proportion of visitors to online exhibitions and galleries jumped by more than 20 percent, and the number of participants in online museum tours almost doubled by 13.4 percent. Interest in curatorial videos, live broadcasts, museum vlogs, online museum pedagogy, podcasts, games, and applications has also grown exponentially. In addition to information about museum visits, the major losers in the transformation were viewers of flash mobs, downloadable online museum issues and smartphone apps.
- - Of the most popular content types, virtual and online exhibitions, galleries, 617 of the respondents indicated that they were browsing such platforms in 2020. Even for their operation later in, it is worth for museums to consider that 33 percent of those under 19, who are less interested in online museum content, visiting such a platform. The respondents in their thirties, who behave differently from other museum visitors in many respects, also paid attention to these platforms. But it is perhaps the most important that the population over the age of seventy and eighty, who often struggles with illness and mobility, is also happy to surf in such exhibitions.
- - Online museum spaces are perhaps the best-known virtual fields of museums. In these platforms, contrary to the thematic contents with curatorial massages, the primary emphasis is placed not on online exhibitions and galleries but on the clarity and discoverability of the exhibition spaces. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive, but in fact, they are often linked. Because the two genres often merge in public thinking, the survey also reveals uncertainties about their differences. 50.1 percent of informants entered such a platform.
The research shows that these applications, which are mainly based on visual and virtual experience were less of interest to graduates and people with academic degrees than virtual exhibitions composed with texts and other hypertextual layers.
- - The popularity of online guided tours increased by 56 percent in the 2020s compared to the pre-pandemic period, with 30.3 percent of respondents reporting using this opportunity.
- - Especially during the second wave of the pandemic, it became common for museums to attract the attention of the public with live conversations, broadcast events and book presentations. The events mainly broadcast on the institutions’ YouTube or Facebook channels, did not capture the attention of those under 19 and the less educated. However, this is the service that was more popular among people living in cities than among those living in the capital or in a smaller settlement. Only those living in county seats followed several live museum broadcasts on the Internet.
- - International and national research has found that museums have found their activities in the social media to be most effective, which was proven by the visitor research, too. Since the restrictions imposed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, 72.8 percent of respondents follow museums on these platforms, which is a significant increase. The proportion of those who started following more museums than before during this period is 48.1 percent.
- - The ratio of those interested in museum content has increased from 20.9 to 25.2 percent on Instagram, 2.2 to 3.3 percent on TikTok and from 1.9 to 2.1 percent on Twitter.
- - Facebook is the only area where men are more interested (60%) in museum content, with eight percent. In comparison by place of residence, it is also rare for people living in the county seat -both women and men - to “perform better” than those in the capital.
- - Examining Instagram users shows a completely different picture. While the use of the platform is negligible among those over the age of sixty, among those under the age of 19, the views of museum contents is remarkably high (65%). (This is supported by the data of people with only a primary school diploma (64%)). According to the research, museums with Instagram posts can count on those in their twenties (64%) and thirties (40%).
- - As a result of the quarantine situation, the largest proportion of age groups were those in their seventies (44%) and in their sixties (36%) have signed up for a new museum newsletter, which shows that institutions should continue to address these age groups in this way.
- - 7 percent of the respondents used museum content for their work, and 29.4 percent of the respondents also accessed these pages for study purposes. Among the content types, the use of online museum pedagogy classes happen 2.5 times more often. Surprisingly, only 51 of the 286 people were under the age of 19 and 43 were in their twenties, suggesting that online space could be an effective tool for lifelong learning even later in life.
- - Only 7.2 percent of the 71 participants in the research decided to participate in a paid online guided tour or download issues and content they have to pay for.
- - 2 percent of the participants responded to calls from Hungarian museums: 127 of the 957 people who responded to the question by sharing images and texts on the websites of museums and sent digital or physical material to their calls.
- - Only 23.9 percent of the respondents browsed exclusively Hungarian museum content. The vast majority, 56.9 percent, focused more on Hungarian materials, 17.9 percent more on foreign materials, and twelve (1.3%) surfed only on the international stage.
- - 1 percent of informants may have been amazed by new museum areas they did know much about before.
- - A significant proportion of respondents to the survey felt that museums had made an effort to remain available online and to fulfil their role as a "public collection".
- - Among the Hungarian institutions, the “big guns”, those national museums with the technical background and professional staff were clearly the most popular among the informants. But in besides the Hungarian National Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, the Ethnographic Museum and the Hungarian Open-Air Museum and foreign examples, the connection to an institution based on local, analogue experiences were still perceivable.
- - Many informants specifically appreciated the efforts and learning processes of the smaller institutions, the experiments and imaginative solutions of the staff, while they were also aware that these collections did not have the appropriate expertise and infrastructure.
- - The people of the capital, who are already familiar with the international online museum offer, have not discovered much about the Hungarian collections in the countryside.
- - It is a novelty that several museum professionals were mentioned (more than once!) by name (archaeological posts of Orsolya Láng / Aquincum Museum, Csaba Tóth / National Museum's history of money series, Gábor Bellák / MNG lecture series), which shows the strengthening appreciation of the curatorial and museological work, the foreshadowing authorship and the curatorial entity.
- - In the case of favourite foreign content, an even more diverse list has emerged based on the museums listed by the informants. At the top of the list are the well-known museums of the museum world, which boast a high number of visitors (British Museum, Louvre, Uffizi, MET, Rijskmuseum, etc.) and the collections that can be discovered through the Google Art Project. However, the wide-ranging communications of informants in many parts of the world also show that museum knowledge transfer broke through borders in 2020, crossed language barriers, and Hungarian users became part of the hypertextual network that sometimes even connected different initiatives.
287 substantive answers were given to the question of what they could have done better. These can be summarized as follows:
- Lack of communication, online marketing and conscious pursuit of reaching more people. More online advertisements.
- Audience-specific content beyond the “making it for all” idea. Making interesting material for young people.
- New forms need to be invented that are better suited to the world of the internet.
- Higher quality, professional, quality materials. It was sometimes disappointing that the online program advertised in the media proved to be a “empty”.
- In live broadcasts, the sight of the private space in the background was disturbing.
- More resources and support for content development, IT investment in museums, adequate professionals.
- More digital content, higher quality digitization of works of art.
- More information about warehouse materials and work processes.
- More video content, more live online tours, even more free online issues.
- Not only to provide information and content, but also to encourage and involve the audience in activities.
- Stronger integration of the urban spaces, which are also available during the quarantine period, into applications and online programs.
- More creative and less professional content, more humour, more playful solutions.
- Shorter contents.
- Diversity with varied content. A lot of museums have remained unifacial or copied each other. Many felt that online content was made in kind of a 'one-size-fits-all' approach.
- To offer more direct content for teachers that can be used in online education, even separately for primary school students, for high school students and for university students.
- Targeted reach of educators.
- Collaboration with representatives of contemporary art, as well as artistic theatre, films and musical institutions.
- Lack of cooperation between museums. A common platform where contents can be accessed immediately.
- Answer user questions, react to posts. If museums and museologists do not respond, it suggests as if the audience would not be important to the authors.
- Do not overcharge online programs and exhibitions.
- The content should not only be present on social media but on news portals as well. Decentralized technologies should be preferred over centralized social media. Anyone who doesn't have Facebook has very limited access to museums.”
- More foreign language content.
- Continue online activity even if museums reopen. Not like in the summer, when visitors were finally able to go to the museums, but suddenly they received less information.
As can be seen, the comments were not based on a list of shortcomings, but on opportunities for improvement, taking into account the capabilities and the difficulties of finding support and funding for museums. Moreover, users do not consider online content to be “closed” after the quarantine and reopening of museums.
One of the biggest questions for museums is whether they will get their offline visitors back after the pandemic or will there be a growing demand for online content? It is also important to them how much impact their activity had in the PR point of view: whether their virtual content was good enough for their visitors to make them the museum it after the reopening, after tourism will gain back its momentum. 46.1 percent of respondents think they will definitely visit a museum based on content they got to know online if institutions reopen and they will be able to travel again, 34.9 percent think about doing so and only 18.2 percent said that they will not.
(For more graphs, examples and opinions, click here)
Picture: Kazinczy Ferenc Museum, KAMU-blog
Fordította: Szilágyi Erika Krisztina