A world of art at our fingertips: How COVID-19 accelerated the digitization of culture
Compared to last year, we can enjoy more museums, music and theatre from home
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:
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:
The Vatican allows virtual strolls into the Sistine Chapel, where you can gaze at the work of Michelangelo.
WATCH | Inside the Sistine Chapel:
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 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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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."