These days I noticed a new poster of the local Kunsthalle. It advertises a digital exhibition, an exhibition that can be visited online. A great thing. But I haven’t had a look at the exhibition yet either. No time. Perhaps symptomatic of this time, when you’re sitting on the ‘right’ side. and don’t have to deal with your worries about the future.
What I asked myself: why not like this? Why did months have to pass even in the art scene before it dared to take the step into the digital age? What I mean: why was it only months after the start of the pandemic that museums were digitised and made available online? Well, there were already one or two museums that had an online exhibition. But those were the exceptions. Only since a few weeks, months after the start of the pandemic, have the museums and galleries gradually come into the digital world.
The only explanation I can think of is twofold.
On the one hand, it is certainly a technical effort to digitise and prepare an exhibition. This is analogous to the whole issue of digitalisation in schools, where it is not enough to distribute ipads to teachers and pupils. In a museum, it is not enough to photograph the exhibits. The real effort comes after the photos have been taken: the processing.
On the other hand, museums and galleries are certainly also taking a risk with the step into digitisation. More than a financial risk. What happens, for example, if someone likes the digital exhibition? Will that person ever physically visit a gallery or museum again? Isn’t something important lost in the digital world: the responsiveness of the visitor and the resulting financial added value? Many a museum has worked for a long time to become more than just a place for exhibitions. A place of encounter, a place to linger. Is this even possible in the digital world?
Worse question: what happens if a visitor does not like the digital exhibition? Does this damage the reputation of the gallery or the museum? Will that visitor ever come back to a digital exhibition? (Paradoxical, but I think this is also a risk).
In general, how can a digital museum function financially? Parallel to the physical museum? The expenses of the physical museums often cannot be covered by the entrance fees. And now the additional expense of digitisation?
I do believe that digitalisation is perceived as a risk by galleries and museums. When I look at the digital museums on the net (yes, I will also visit the local Kunsthalle digitally in the next few days …), the museums seem to have different approaches. ), the museums also seem to have different approaches. Some see the digital offer as an image of the physical offer. For those, the digital offer is only a digital appendage to the actual museum. These museums and galleries will, I think, always have to struggle with the problem that this digital appendage costs additional money without delivering significant added value. Yes, these digital presences certainly appeal to people. They bring – even outside the pandemic – visitors to the digital museum who otherwise would not have visited the physical one. But these visitors can do no more with such a digital appendage than look at pictures and videos and perhaps leave an entry in the guest book. The digital appendages are simply not made for more.
And then there are the galleries and museums that allow their digital presence to take on a life of its own. They don’t just feed the digital presence with the content of the physical exhibition. But with additional materials. With pieces from their own archives. With found objects from the internet. With digital pieces from other museums. And who also allow their digital presence to take on a life of its own in the rest of its design. Who interact with their visitors. Far beyond the website. Who also make their digital presence a place of encounter. A place to immerse oneself. Only digitally. Who grant their digital presence such a life of its own and concede that it could even exist without the actual, physical museum. These galleries and museums run the risk of depriving their physical presence of visitors and making it increasingly difficult to finance.
I think the only model with a future is the second. The one in which the physical presence of a gallery or museum is in indirect competition with its digital presence. Both have to compete for visitors and both have to see how they can organise their existence financially. And certainly in competition with each other. Only in this way can the traditional visitors who want to smell the museum (they can’t touch anything anyway … ) be addressed in the same way as the visitors whose everyday life is so digitalised that they also want to visit the museum from their sofa. And still want to enjoy (social) interaction. Because there is an important opportunity in digitalisation: easier networking and exchange between galleries and museums. One should not only think in terms of visitors here, but also of the advantages that digitisation can bring to the galleries and museums among themselves.
What I also noticed about the Kunsthalle poster is that it is the only one. Far and wide.
Well, during the pandemic many advertising budgets are certainly reduced. And now, when there aren’t even any Shrove Monday parades, I can’t expect someone to parade through the streets with a megaphone pointing out the new website. But I don’t see any digital advertising either. Neither in the relevant social media, nor in the local (digital) newspaper, for example. Well, I have seen an advertisement in the past – but so rarely that I don’t even know when it was.
And I ask myself: if I promote my digital presence with a few physical posters in the city and otherwise, especially digitally, hardly appear at all: is that the right approach for a digital presence? For a successful digitalisation? That I put the content online and nobody finds out ?
No, I don’t think so. Digital works differently.
Just as I, as a seller at a weekly market, have to assert myself against my competitors and this is not always possible with the most beautiful vegetables, but sometimes also with a strong voice. If I want digital success, I also have to ‘shout’ digitally against my competitors. Or shield my customers from the competition on their way to me and focus them.
The competition to a physical museum is already complex: the other museums, the cafés, the shopping centres, Netflix on the sofa, the digital presence of other museums. All this is competition for the physical museum visit.
But the competition for a digital museum is worlds greater. Everything that is served digitally and somehow draws attention to itself is competition for the digital museum…. That’s the way it is in the digital world. In order to assert myself here, or to bring someone to me, I have to get their attention. More than that: I have to get it. I have to be present to him. I have to take care of him in such a way that he is not interested in all the other offers and distractions until he has been with me. And the local art gallery doesn’t seem to be doing that (unfortunately and yet).
True to the motto: imagine it’s digital and everyone goes but you.
What a pity.