The importance of digitizing exhibitions and collections for online audiences

Recently over the past couple of years with the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic, the GLAM sector has had to adapt to how they use their exhibitions and archive collections. With the forced closure of almost every cultural institution, museums and galleries had to come up with innovative ways to engage their audiences from the comfort of their own homes. It became clear throughout this time, that having an online presence was vital to help the preservation of exhibitions and archives, but it also proved to have challenges for cultural workers and reinventing the idea of the Museum/Gallery space within itself.

During the height of the Pandemic we saw the rise of big institutions within the GLAM sector take over the internet by providing fun innovative ways to use their already mostly digitized archives to connect with their communities, carrying on that engagement between their collections. ‘The response of many museums was to take their collections online, resulting in a variety of digital initiatives which showcased the creativity, diversity and community of the heritage sector. Some institutions began pandemic collections to document the impact of the virus, while others shared their already digitised collections with the public through a multitude of platforms.’[1] Using social media as a tool to entice audiences in, many of the bigger institutions were able to transform the Gallery/Museum space into the homes of their audiences. Using ideas such as online virtual tours (immersing audiences into the museum space from a HD perspective), social media challenges (using objects from around your house to imitate famous artworks) and quizzes allowed for the GLAM sectors collections to keep alive and bustling whilst the doors of our cultural institutions were shut.

However, with all the fun that was happening online to help distract the public from the boredom associated with isolating; the cultural sector realised just how important the digital pivot was to ensuring the survival of GLAM institutions. In an article from the Museums association, it states ‘As of 28 April 2021, there have been 4,100 redundancies in the museum sector in the UK. This includes 1,850 proposed and 2,250 confirmed redundancies across all job types and types of employment. Using ONS figures for the size of the workforce this loss of jobs accounts for approximately 8% of all employment in museums across the UK.’[2] With the GLAM sector struggling to keep their doors open after the resurgence of normal life, the implications and impacts of the pandemic hit most heavily on cultural workers with the majority of workers being laid off simply because their work environment only accommodated to be in spaces which aren’t viable in our current advancement of technology and capital.

Most collections are only available to see in person, limiting the amount of access the public has to the archives and exhibitions put on from smaller instructions but also limiting the working conditions for those who continuously care and monitor those collections.  The pandemic has only highlighted the demand for more content to be digitised and for new ways in which cultural workers can help contribute to such a massive undertaking.

Some organisations managed to successfully put their cultural workers to work by getting them to participate in crowdsourcing projects, that way keeping people employed but also contributing to the research and digitisation of thousands of objects making these knowledges more accessible to the public. These sorts of online projects allowed for the audiences to truly experience what they had been expecting from the GLAM sector and the objects that are put on display.

The digital pivot allows for the personal connection between the audience and allows them to delve deeper into the histories/knowledges about the culture of each object without the stigma that is attached to these items through the institution’s walls. Not only does the digitisation of collections create deeper more personalised connections to our histories and culture but it also allows for more equal opportunities to experience these wonders of the world for people of all backgrounds.

Opening up and realising just how valuable an online collection is to the general public, allows for a new chapter to start in the GLAM sector and allows a way forward for the sector to innovate and move on with global trends. Bigger institutions such as the national galleries of Scotland are already starting to recognise the importance of an online digital presence. ‘Our digital engagement strategy has three strategic objectives at its core: open up our collection, grow our audiences and increase income generation.’[3] Recognising through research that the majority of the people accessing their online resources are people with only have general knowledge of art (55.85%), they have seen the need for a platform that invites their audiences to engage affectively with artworks and their definitions allowing for that knowledge base to be expanded.

It is clear that over recent years the GLAM sector has been doing all they can to ensure that more content is available online after demand from communities and researchers has increased especially after the limiting effects of the global pandemic. The success of bigger institutions with more resources and the majority of their work already online gave way to fun innovative idea of how we can reimagine the museum space and start to break down those barriers/stigmas and start to make a more inclusive environment for the public wanting to engage with heritage and culture. Activities done at home and the online presence of people from around the world allowed for network of support through the medium of art and in turn this promoted the importance of the cultural sector and its affects on society. But with all the positives that come out of the digital pivot there are also its downfalls and things we should seriously consider when bridging the gap between online and in person experiences. Many smaller institutions unfortunately suffered because of their lack of online presence which lead to the impact of job loses for many cultural workers and there is still a dilemma to the future of the GLAM sector with the hybrid of a digital and in person setting and the resources available to such institutions. Navigating ourselves now in a post Covid world how can we bridge the gap between the digital pivot and in person experience and use resources most effectively so when crisis hits the GLAM sector can best navigate itself through the storm.

[1] Burke, V., Jørgensen, D. and Jørgensen, F.A., 2020. Museums at home: Digital Initiatives in Response to Covid-19. Norsk museumstidsskrift, 6(02), pp.117-123.

[2] Museums Association, 2021. Redundancies after one year of Covid.

[3] National Galleries of Scotland Digital Audience and Content plan, 2017-19