It has been decades since museums, along with books and theatre, were foretold to cease to exist. COVID-19 has indeed contributed to the debate regarding the "things of the past".
Over 85 000 cultural heritage sites and museums - that is, approx. 90 % of the global number - have been closed to visitors due to the coronavirus. Only the strongest will survive, experts from UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) note. Such a conclusion they made on the back of research on the impact of the pandemic on cultural institutions. One in eight museums worldwide will not reopen after lockdowns have been lifted. Private collections, non-art museums, memorial flats, and small provincial collections, which account, for instance, for 30 % of museums in Europe, are hit the hardest.
Expositions considered as world or national treasures are not threatened by bankruptcy. No government would tolerate such reputational and cultural damage. In Russia, the largest and most significant museums rely on state support. There is a similar system in the UK: landmarks of cultural importance are fully financed by the state. US museums make money either on their own or get sponsored by private entities and corporations. In other words, they have a safety cushion, too.
All kinds of museums - be they small or big - can lose visitors in an instant, as the experience of living amid the pandemic shows. However, according to ReportLinker's analysis, the global museums, historical sites, zoos, and parks market is expected to grow from $41.84 billion in 2020 to $48.53 billion in 2021. Furthermore, it is expected to reach $63.84 billion in 2025. ReportLinker attributes the future growth mainly to the companies rearranging their operations.
In the past, audio guides with pre-recorded audio files in the language opted were the pinnacle of progress. Nowadays, there is much more to choose from. Art galleries, museums, and even zoos that take advantage of new technologies thereby dramatically increase their chances of surviving into the future. These may include 3D tours showcasing their collections online, apps and digital guides for smartphones, using augmented reality (AR) technology to create a real-world experience.
"For today's museums, the most crucial development point in terms of embracing digital technology would be creating entirely virtual exhibitions. They allow visitors to see museums' showpieces without leaving their homes or at any other location. Virtual reality (VR) is what helps bypass that dreaded museum taboo - "DON'T TOUCH EXHIBITS" signs. After all, with a VR headset and controllers on, you can take the dinosaur skull you were looking at into your hands, spin it around, and examine it down to the last detail. Of course, it is quite a demanding task from various points of view - technical, museum, expositional, marketing and educational among them. The Mining Museum starts this global transformation by embarking upon the complete digitisation of its machinery collection. We want to create 3D models of all the equipment illustrating the development of the mining industry over the past 250 years. The exhibition will be divided into two parts: some items will be made available on the Internet - for a fee or gratis - and others will remain on display at the museum," says Mikhail Shabalov, director of the Mining Museum.
Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece, used AR technology to bring a collection of architectural and sculptural remains to life. Cleveland Museum of Art uses it to let visitors interact and access information about the museum's artworks. ArtLens, the Cleveland Museum of Art's app, allows its users to create a virtual collage from the museum's gallery of on-view works. Software applications of this type offer museum visitors an opportunity to interact with items and learn more about them by checking out the comprehensive video, audio, and text information.
"Today's visitors should be able to familiarise themselves with exhibits individually. For this purpose, video and image recognition technologies or QR codes are used. In an ideal situation, it would be good to have multi-level databases presenting data in a structured way since visitors' knowledge of the exhibition's topic may vary from nothing about it to being a specialist in this field," notes Mikhail Shabalov.
Such tours can be conducted via a particular mobile app or a portable device accessible within the building. When the device points to a sculpture, artefact or painting, information about it appears on the screen. Pop-up snippets, detailed descriptions and additional photos are some of the possible examples. Instead of a brief look at the showpieces, visitors interact with them, which significantly increases the average time spent inside the museum. This means they become increasingly interested in something they may have not known, wondered about, or had access to yesterday.
The American movie industry has, as always, anticipated the forthcoming change. Night at the Museum, filmed in 2006, was so popular that its producers filmed two more sequels to the blockbuster. In total, the movies grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, whilst they only showed what the virtual reality of warehouse artefacts may look like.