A world of art at our fingertips: How COVID-19 accelerated the digitization of culture

One of the positive effects of the pandemic has been the acceleration of the digitization of cultural treasures as museums and concert halls scrambled to put centuries of human achievement online. Here are some of the artworks and performances you can now enjoy from home.

Compared to last year, we can enjoy more museums, music and theatre from home

For purveyors of the most famous art in the world, the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have hastened the move to digitization. (Creative Commons/Flickr/Metropolitan Museum of Art/Tim Kindrachuk/CBC)

One potential legacy of this pandemic is its power of acceleration, its ability to speed up existing trend lines — toward remote work, more online commerce, even China-U.S. tension.

It's done the same with culture.

The pandemic accelerated the digitization of world cultural treasures, with centuries of human achievement in art, music and theatre already online and new items being added at a faster rate.

Compared to just a year ago, when COVID-19 first disrupted our lives, adults and kids now stuck at home can visit more venues virtually than ever.

That phenomenon was capped this spring by news that the world's most-visited museum, the Louvre, had placed its entire collection online. The Louvre's new platform allows people to peruse 482,000 pieces, in searchable format, including items stored in vaults not accessible to in-person museum-goers.

GALLERY | Some of the Louvre's online offerings:

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Many larger institutions like the Parisian giant had already made significant strides before last year to increase their online presence. But the rest of the cultural sector was forced into an innovative panic when COVID-19 struck.

"The sky was falling," said Marty Spellerberg, a Canadian-born, Texas-based digital strategist for museums

The industry news site TheArtMuseum.com, which runs an annual survey on museum attendance, found a staggering 77 per cent drop in 2020. Visitors to the world's 100 most popular museums was down to 54 million, from 230 million the year before.

The smallest institutions were hit hardest, says Danuta Sierhuis, who had already been working for several years to build online experiences at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"I could see a lot of them, in message boards, asking, 'How do we do this? How do we rapidly digitize our collection?'" she said.

"Everyone was a bit overwhelmed. … It was a pretty hard pivot. Most institutions were given a mandate to shut the doors pretty fast." 

A tour of the greatest hits

The biggest institutions already had impressive online offerings and added to them.

For example, Google's massive Arts and Culture project has sites and apps that let you project famous paintings into your home; get singing tips from a soprano; create GIFs and art from your photos; study famous painters and their techniques; bring an enormous dinosaur back to life; and explore museum sites from Nairobi to Toronto.

The British Museum not only offers podcasts and virtual strolls, it lets you twirl and zoom in on 3D replicas of the Rosetta Stone, the Babylonian map of the world, sculptures of Egyptian pharaohs, a mummy's mask and a frieze from the Parthenon.

WATCH | Virtual offerings at the British Museum:

Inside the Sistine Chapel

3 years ago
Duration 0:55
The website of the Vatican Museums allows users to peruse the frescoes of Michelangelo that adorn the inside of the Sistine Chapel in a 3D virtual tour.

The Vatican allows virtual strolls into the Sistine Chapel, where you can gaze at the work of Michelangelo.

WATCH | Inside the Sistine Chapel:

Explore the British Museum

3 years ago
Duration 0:30
Worried you won't make it to London this summer? Fret not, the British Museum's online offerings allow you to spend hours parsing the ancient scripts of the Rosetta Stone and other prized items in its collection.

The Smithsonian's network of 19 museums has endless material to explore: virtual reality glimpses of ancient Asian cities; exhibits on Medieval Saharan art; clothes and artifacts from the African American history museum; the flag that inspired the U.S. national anthem; Indigenous history and culture from the Navajo and other treaties, as well as art and even recipes; Neil Armstrong's space suit and objects from the first Moon landing; and planes from the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart.

The Smithsonian also hosts events — concerts, public talks, hundreds of activities for kids of different ages and paid lectures on topics ranging from art to bread-making.

The institution's National Zoo had live web cams on four different animals before last year, and it added two more in 2020, including one that captured a cheetah giving birth

"It's escalated," said Amy Enchelmeyer, the zoo's web specialist, of the Smithsonian's digital presence. "We've also moved it to the forefront."

Music halls forced to innovate fast

Concert halls entered the pandemic with lighter digital footprints than museums and were forced to innovate especially fast.

The Philadelphia Opera, for example, launched a streaming service, offering some content for free and some for subscribers and pay-per-view customers.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York offered a free daily stream of past performances at 7:30 p.m. ET, while the Montreal and Toronto symphony orchestras posted new and older concerts online.

Wigmore Hall in London offers classical live streams and archived performances. The Paris Opera allows users to rent performances and offers free broadcasts if you're on a French internet network. La Scala in Milan has virtual tours and some of its performances online.

All this change has been spurred by a brutal year for the creative sector. 

One group with longstanding experience in this sector, the New York-based Museum Computer Network, has never experienced a year like this, despite working since 1967 to help institutions digitally catalogue their collections.

Milan's La Scala opera house, seen here during the reopening of socially distanced public tours in June 2020, began streaming shows and posting new performances online during the pandemic. (Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters)

"A quarter, if not more, of museum operating revenue was gone. Evaporated," said Eric Longo, executive director of MCN.

"At the same time, there was a desperate need for distraction … What we saw [was] a rush [to digitize]." 

A year later, he says, museums are in a different place.

Canadian outlook

They've also been helped by emergency government funding. The recently passed U.S. federal rescue plan included hundreds of millions of dollars for the arts and museums.

In Canada, the new federal budget promises tens of millions of dollars for the arts — including for museums and the live music sector, as well as funding for digitization.

Ottawa in recent years has funded digital projects and tutorials for museums, including the National Heritage Digitization Strategy.

Canadian museums also worked together to create an online platform — Field Trip: Art Across Canada — to help people sift through the vast swaths of available content.  

The Canadian Museum of History has online exhibits, including a close-up study of the painting Morning Star by Alex Janvier, seen here in 2017 at his gallery in Cold Lake First Nations 149B in Alberta. (Jason Franson/CP)

The Canadian Museum of History has online exhibits on New France and on Indigenous painter Alex Janvier's work Morning Star.

The National Gallery of Canada has tutorials on some of its best-known paintings, such as Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, and annotated pictures from the 19th century. 

The big get bigger, the smaller suffer

Even so, Spellerberg says his data has discouraging implications for museums. 

Despite this historic opportunity for online learning, with hundreds of millions of people locked out of public spaces, he says traffic to museum websites plummeted last year.

He began gathering data from 20 museums, mostly American, when the coronavirus struck, and says all but a couple saw their web traffic go down. The average decrease, he says, was 13 per cent.

"The pandemic hits — and you see everybody's numbers just drop off," he said.

A visitor in a face mask walks past stone sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Most people use museum websites to plan their visit, not necessarily to peruse online offerings, says Marty Spellerberg, a digital strategist for museums. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

How can that be? Spellerberg says most people still use museum websites to plan a visit — check opening hours, buy tickets or scan information on exhibits or collections.

Two institutions that were exceptions to his rule happened to be the largest on his list. The Metropolitan Museum in New York and PBS's interactive museums pages saw web traffic increase.

"The big become bigger," said Dimitrios Latsis, an expert in visual data curation and film studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a former Smithsonian fellow.

"Most of what has been occasioned by the pandemic is just an acceleration — an acceleration of trends that were already underway." 

Those stuck at home during the pandemic have been able to dive into a range of museum collections from around the world. Among the thousands of items posted online by the Smithsonian network of museums is Neil Armstrong's astronaut suit from the 1969 moon landing. (Kevin Fogarty/Reuters)


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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