Why Digital Culture Matters

...and how it is essential to the survival of the Museum and Heritage sector

Digital Culture

Digital Culture has been the buzzword making the rounds of late. Its spread accelerated over the last year with the pandemic and the subsequent impact on the cultural sector. But, whilst most concepts du jour quickly turn out to be no more than fads — or expensive experiments — Digital Culture is crucial to the survival of the M&H sector, and will only increase in importance.

So, what is it? What does it mean? How does it work? Why is it important? And, how could or should it be implemented? This is what we’ll explore in this article.

The notion of Digital Culture has actually been around for over a decade and encompasses everything from digital artworks to mobile apps and guides providing interpretation, to institutional websites and ticketing engines. In short, every point at which the worlds of culture and technology overlap is an aspect of Digital Culture. Activities in the Museums and Heritage sector have always included elements of digital culture within them. It has been the efforts made by the sector, in the wake of COVID, that have really highlighted the opportunities a full-fledged embrace of digital can provide.

Another reason why Digital Culture is finally having its day in the sun is due to a combination of external factors that have aligned to make digital a key tool for our industry. The widespread adoption of smartphones, the cheap cost of data, the nearly complete coverage by mobile networks and the power of cloud-based computing have all revolutionised the way individuals look for and engage with content. The ubiquitous availability of material has entirely altered the way people interact with and absorb information.

The additional factor of cheap or nearly free access to powerful software applications empowers individuals from any walk of life to create and share artworks. These tools facilitate engagement with artists or collections from anywhere in the world. They present exponentially expanding opportunities for museums and art institutions to connect with audiences wherever they may be located.

Through efforts by many organisations over the last year to harness the power of these tools, it is the realisation of such opportunities that have led to the championing of Digital Culture as the key driver of success for our sector going forward. Many have proclaimed this development for a long time, but it is finally and very concretely here.

The ability to provide online audiences access to collections and the many inventive ways in-house teams rapidly pivoted to adopt these approaches has led to a significant upswing in engagement, online traffic, brand awareness, and long-term community building for the institutions that did so. Those digital audiences are now as important as the physical ones.

Digital Culture vs. Digital Transformation

The term Digital Culture is broad, however, it can be broken down into smaller, more specific categories relevant to our industry. But to truly understand how we got here, it’s good to know the difference between Digital Culture and Digital Transformation.

Digital Culture is where the use of technology and the work of the cultural sector collide. It is the use of those tools to aid the cultural world’s delivery against its remit of preserving collections and educating the public about them.

Digital Transformation, on the other hand, is the work done by industries of all kinds to modify and future-proof their business processes – to fully embrace technologies to address changing business opportunities and market requirements.

Whilst some think Digital Culture still only refers to attempts to augment a visitor’s museum experience through enhanced interpretation, it is actually much more than that. Here are a few illustrative examples of how digital underpins the cultural offering.

Digital Storytelling

A fundamental part of Digital Culture is the use of technology to tell the stories about the objects in the collections. The importance of interpretation as a driver of engagement and appreciation of the pieces is well understood. Curatorial teams and interpretation departments around the world are always looking for better, more effective ways to deliver those stories.

Key to the success of Digital Storytelling is that the technology used to deliver the story is almost invisible.  Ideally, the story itself takes centre stage and the technology plays a crucial but distinctly lesser background role.

Initially, technology was employed solely as a channel to deliver this information.  Audio tours conducted visitors around galleries – directing them, aurally, to stop, observe and listen to the material supplied about key works.

From around 2010, audio-guides began to morph into digital guides – smartphone apps that opened up multiple media options enabling video, images and interactive elements to be added to the audio, vastly expanding the kinds of stories that could be told. Now a visitor could have their guide personalised based on their interests. Way-finding solutions could be built in to manage the sites’ visitor flow, whilst interactive games and quizzes could be used to drive home educational aspects.

Since the late 2010s, there have been numerous experiments made by cultural institutions with Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)  solutions from companies like Magic Leap and Oculus Rift. These have been undertaken to investigate how those emerging platforms could and should be employed to deliver immersive and compelling stories, both onsite and online.  

Since the late 2010s, there have been numerous experiments made by cultural institutions with Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) solutions from companies like Magic Leap and Oculus Rift. These have been undertaken to investigate how those emerging platforms could and should be employed to deliver immersive and compelling stories, both onsite and online.

Whilst those who have experienced AR and VR stories are still divided on their effectiveness within exhibition spaces. Some love and champion them, others think they are still too expensive or niche to have any meaningful impact. However, work continues to see how these technologies will be adopted by the world at large and what lasting effects they will have on digital storytelling.

Interestingly, over the past few years, an increasing number of institutions have moved away from these new platforms to return to the tried and tested format of the audio-guide. Audio has seen a huge renaissance through the rise of podcasts. As a halo effect, people’s love for the medium had seen consumption of the audio-guide grow significantly. Another reason for the reconsideration of audio is simply down to usability – digital guides were becoming increasingly complex and thus pulling people away from the stories, or the experiences of being within the museum space.

Digital Storytelling is one of the most exciting parts of Digital Culture, marrying the creative imagination with burgeoning technical ability. Audiences now have even more opportunities to view artworks in new and previously unimagined ways, and there is still plenty of room for growth in the field.

Digital Interactives & Immersive Installations

Interactives refers to any object or surface a user is encouraged to interact with to achieve an effect. These can be as varied as screens that people touch to discover information, interactive surfaces or tables that can be used to reveal artworks, or image/gesture capture devices allowing the visitors to become pieces of art themselves.

Digital interactives are an evolution of the traditional, in-museum, mechanical interactives that would be found dispersed amongst an exhibition. Normally they were there to be used by children who would twiddle knobs, push buttons or move metal rings to try and get an understanding of the principles being presented.

The Cleveland One Gallery
Interactive wall and gesture search kiosk at The Cleveland One Gallery
Interactive wall and gesture search kiosk at The Cleveland One Gallery
Interactive wall and gesture search kiosk at The Cleveland One Gallery by Local Projects.

Today, however, digital interactives are a different being altogether, one that is vastly more engaging and exciting to people of all ages. These interactives are increasingly becoming fully-fledged immersive experiences. In some cases, these captivating pieces are the exhibition itself. Work being done in this field is revolutionising the expectations of what museums could be in the future.

Some of the most exciting work is being produced by the US team Local Projects and the international collective teamLab who have exhibitions across the world.

Team Lab Borderless
Team Lab Borderless

Images from one of the several touring, immersive experiences created by TeamLab

Social Culture

The lockdown periods of COVID shone a spotlight on the power of social media as the fundamental way, and for many, the only way for museums and galleries to connect with their audiences and provide some much-needed escapism.

The realisation of the power of these social platforms as a means to build meaningful relationships led to some of the most creative and engaging audience outreach ever undertaken by the sector. Online activities moved away from the traditional unidirectional marketing campaigns and genuinely embraced opportunities to drive engagement and build communities, inviting people at home to participate in activities that brought them closer to the cultural world.

Museums rolled out many online events across the globe, using various calls to action. Some examples included challenges to recreate artworks, initiatives to get children to view their homes as museums, digital viewings, online exhibitions, streamed performances and virtual art festivals on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, online classes and curatorial talks on platforms like Zoom and YouTube, etc. Even virtual tours of closed museums were offered by some of the most prestigious names like the Rijkemsuem, Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre, produced in partnership with Google Culture.

Image is taken from the challenge to recreate artwork and promoted on Instagram of tussenkunstenquarantz and with the hashtag #gettymuseumchallenge.

Activities were run across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Tik Tok. There was even a cross-over with the gaming industry, where within the newly released Nintendo game: Animal Crossing: New Horizons, gamers could add work of arts from institutions including the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some of the hashtags used to share and promote these activities were #tussenkunstenquarantaine or #gettymuseumchallenge. Cultural heritage professionals shared singular objects and stories from their collections using a variety of hashtags including #MuseumFromHome, #MuseumsUnlocked, #ClosedButOpen, #ClosedButActive, #ArTyouReady). (Source: Europena)

Building Digital Brands in the Museum & Heritage Space

There is no turning back. Audiences’ expectations have changed. As the world reopens, we can only expect to see more and more of these activities. The future of Digital Culture is a vital one. It’s going to change the notion of what museums are and the position they occupy in our societies. This reckoning has been accelerated by the pandemic, with very real consequences for those who aren’t able to make the leap and adopt these new ways of working. It is estimated that 30- 50% of cultural institutions and museums have potentially closed for good.

Crucial to any museum moving into this new space is how to build and manage its brand and identity. How to stand out and become an identifiable custodian brand that is more than the sum of their collection and the brick and mortar environment in which it is held. The importance of a brand with a clear voice, curatorial authority and engaging content is going to be why people will return to engage with a museum’s digital footprint – to find out what it is going to do next.

The Digital Path to Success

Digital culture is the new culture, given that we have now all fully embraced digital in every other aspect of our lives, from work to recreation. Museums, in large part, are still behind in their digital transformation, partly due to fear that audiences were even further behind in the adoption of digital technology. If anything the pandemic has proven the audience has well and truly caught up, so now is the time to start engaging.

As the world opens up and we acclimatise to our new reality, we now live with some new truths. Museums are going to have to make changes in the ways they deliver interpretation and stories. The pandemic has made everyone keenly aware of the potential spread of germs/viruses. So traditional business models like the distribution of rentable devices for audio guildes now seem out of touch with people’s safety concerns. Progressive web apps that users can now download to their own devices quickly, and in most cases for free, will replace the rented devices removing those fears. Technologies like AR, VR, voice and gesture controls have all matured over the same period and now present novel ways for audiences to connect and interact with objects in the collections. Cultural institutions are going to have to invest in these new methods for creating shared experiences, and educational opportunities. Institutions that recognise this fact and act upon it will stand a much stronger chance of thriving than those that do not.

Digital should be used to create the process or tools for connecting visitors to the stories that are to be told. The stories are and should always be the most important part- they need to be created and shaped before digital tools are brought in to help tell them. No strategy for any museum or institution should be led by digital, but for every museum that wants to play a role in shaping culture, who wants to live into our new future, incorporating digital as a key pillar within the overall strategy is essential. Where digital was previously a nice-to-have, it now plays a central role in the processes needed to deliver against business objectives.

Luizidlab is an international community of acclaimed digital storytellers and strategists, content creators and experience designers. We are a collective driven by the desire to bridge the gap between culture, technology and humanity.  We come from within the Museum and Heritage sector, having worked to create tools that underpin digital culture at interpretation agencies for leading institutions around the world. It is our mission to work with museums of all sizes to ensure they have the tools, skills and know-how to thrive within the ever-changing realm of digital culture. 

We are always looking to collaborate with cultural, educational and social entities to build projects that will lead to more positive futures for all. If there is a project we can help you with, get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

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