ICOM VoicesThe Digital Leap: Museums Adapting to COVID-19 and Beyond
Michael Louis Eulenstein and Dr. Michael H. Faber
Research Assistant at University of Hildesheim, Department 4: Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Economics and Computer Science / President of the International Committee for Audiovisual, New Technologies and Social Media (AVICOM).
A Survey of Digital Strategies in Museums During the Pandemic and the Future of Audience Engagement
The Covid-19 pandemic introduced unprecedented challenges for museums worldwide, forcing them to develop digital strategies to maintain a public presence and engage with audiences. The ICOM-AVICOM/ICOM-MPR (International Committee for Audiovisual, New Technologies and Social Media and International Committee for Marketing and Public Relations) Solidarity Project Report, conducted in cooperation with ICOM Germany, investigated the digital approaches adopted by 173 museums from 51 countries across all continents. This article discusses the findings of this comprehensive study, and the potential impact on public relations and audience development in the digital era for small and medium-sized museums.
During the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, museums faced the challenge of maintaining a connection with their audiences. Many museums had an online and social media presence before 2020, but Covid-19 made them actively expand their digital offerings, introducing new formats such as podcasts, digital guided visits, and online mediation. These initiatives were aimed at bridging the physical distance and enabling museums to stay in touch with the public.
The survey aimed to understand how museums leveraged their websites and social media platforms to sustain or intensify their public presence and address not only the pandemic but also other events of public concern. Key questions focused on the types of new formats and communication channels developed, the visual language employed to engage audiences, the long-term sustainability of these new digital initiatives, and the strategies employed to differentiate each museum’s online profile from others.
The study’s methodology involved the development of the MuseumMatrix, an evaluation tool consisting of five main categories: informativeness, relevance, platform suitability, visitor-oriented, and sustainability. Each category consists of numerous criteria, with a point system in which institutions are able to earn up to 100 points in each category. The MuseumMatrix® was designed by Matthias Henkel[i] as an evaluation tool for the museum sector to record data for further analysis. It is a tool created to promote museums in the age of increasing audience orientation and it can help evaluate and guide the digital transformation of museums, enabling them to remain relevant for their diverse audiences. During the survey, the primary purpose of the tool was to illustrate the digital performances of the museums and to present the results graphically. For example, the Fondation Beyeler (figure 1) scores 92 out of 100 in the category ‘Informative’. It provides a mission statement (10 points) and up-to-date information on the current exhibition (20 points). It also displays opening and closing times (5 points) and hygiene measures (10 points). In the category ‘Relevance’, the museum scores 75 out of 100 points. It addresses relevant topics such as ecology, migration, diversity, mental health, and demographics (10 points). However, it does not have a Covid-related exhibition (0 points). In the category ‘Platform suitability’, it scores 79 out of 100.
The Fondation effectively uses social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube (8 points each). It also has a search bar (5 points) and contact information available (5 points). The museum scores 64,5 out of 100 in this category ‘Visitor-Oriented’. It offers educational programs for all age groups (10 points) and brings the exhibition closer to visitors through guides, experts, and witnesses of the time (13 points). However, it does not have media material available on the website (0 points). In the category ‘Sustainability’, the Fondation scores 90 out of 100. It has a clear recognizable corporate design (10 points) but lacks features like media coverage material (3 points) and responsiveness and interaction on social media (1.5 points).
Examples of best practices
The following are best practice examples of digital offerings of museums. The Inhotim open-air museum in Brumadinho, Brazil, released their most successful video on YouTube on 13 June 2020. The 4:40-minute-long video has received more than 5,000 likes and 67,270 views. ‘Todo o Sentimento: Orquestra de Câmara Inhotim’ includes a personal adress from the museum’s director with a hopeful message, which is accompanied by the museum’s orchestra playing in the idyllic park of the museum. The video contains drone footage of the gorgeous landscape of the open-air museum, shots of the chamber ensemble performing at the museum, and interviews with both the chamber ensemble’s director and the museum’s director.
Despite the initial advantages enjoyed by larger and better-funded museums, such as Inhotim, during the lockdown, smaller museums like the Medicinal History Museum in Ingolstadt (Germany) also proved their ability to maintain strong connections with their audiences. They implemented innovative strategies, such as the daily online mediation series called #covid19history, where they showcased artifacts related to pandemics throughout history, including beak masks worn by doctors during the Black Death.
Others, like the Deutsches Panzermuseum (German Tank Museum) in Munster, made efforts to attract visitors and establish connections between their exhibitions and current events. They launched video series that specifically focused on the Ukrainian war, aiming to engage audiences by bridging historical exhibits with present-day issues.
During the pandemic, many museums explored new formats like podcasts to engage with their target audiences. The Inhotim Museum for example started their podcast in 2022 and the MARKK in Hamburg started during the first lockdown in April 2020. One noteworthy example of this approach is the Natural History Museum (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin), which introduced a popular podcast titled ‘Beats & Bones’ (created in 2020) centered around their current exhibition. With a rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars (rated by 393 users) on Apple Podcasts, this podcast has effectively expanded the museum’s reach and enhanced audience engagement.
The Solidarity Project Report enables museums to learn from the best practices and successes of other institutions. The survey sheds light on the potential for innovation and creativity in museum practices, as institutions experimented with new communication channels, interactive elements, and storytelling techniques to captivate and educate their visitors. These novel approaches may well shape the future of museum experiences, both in-person and online, as the sector continues to evolve. The full report, available in English, French and Spanish, includes a detailed score for each museum evaluated, other best practice examples, statistics, and an interactive index. Additionally, it features a contribution by Matthias Henkel, titled ‘Curating the Museum as a Brand’. This piece emphasizes the importance of establishing a strong and recognizable museum identity, further underscoring the role of digital strategies in shaping a museum’s public image and reputation.
In conclusion, the ICOM-AVICOM/ICOM-MPR Solidarity Project Report offers valuable insights into the digital transformation of museums during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. As museums continue to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age, the lessons learned from this study can inform future strategies and approaches.
For more information and to access the full report, please visit: