Over the past years, there has been a heated debate over the extent to which arts and culture organisations should embrace digital solutions. Would an extensive online database of the collection lead to fewer visitors? Is the effort to be present on social media really worth it? Should we invest in digital solutions to make the exhibitions and shows accessible from home?
The current Covid-19 crisis has taken a massive toll on the economy. But also the arts and culture scene in Austria – a country famous for music, arts and culture – has been heavily affected. Many organisations feel left alone by the government. What will this mean for them in the long-run? One thing we can be sure about is that the legitimisation of digital offers was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Literally from one day to the other museums, theatres, opera houses, galleries and concert halls had to close their doors. Those who had already invested in a digital presence had a clear advantage.
I am an avid lover of museum and gallery visits. I grew up playing the piano and the flute and, hence, enjoy listening to concerts. Over the past weeks of social distancing, I was analysing the online presence of selected Viennese arts and culture organisations which I like to visit under “normal circumstances”. I was curious if their digital presence could really serve as a substitute of a real life visit. Let me share my verdict.
In my opinion, the process and also the communication about the digital offer of the Vienna State Opera was a bit confusing. The way it was advertised in the media initially made me think that these were live streams of current opera performances. Of course, this was not possible – the artists can not be on stage in a big group of people if our right to assembly was suspended and no more than five people were allowed to meet. Therefore, the opera offers a library of past performances to stream from various devices. I could immediately access the streams on my laptop. Watching from a phone or on the TV requires downloading an app.
I first started using it in March. I had to sign up on the website, and the free subscription included three shows – Swan Lake (2014), The Abduction from the Seraglio (1989) and Tosca (2019). The subscription was valid until the beginning of May. Additional performances could be purchased for EUR 5.
Of course, streaming an opera in your living room will never fully come up to the experience of an actual visit – there is no dressing up, no walking up the beautiful staircase of the Vienna State Opera, no people watching and, most importantly, the sound is different. However, I think it is a great addition to the traditional opera visit and also a nice thing to have in a lockdown situation. Even though additional streams cost EUR 5, I think it is worth the investment if you are an opera enthusiast. It is like buying a movie. Of course, watching a movie at home is a different experience than being at the movie theatre. But in times like these, I am glad we can bring the State Opera home.
The Albertina is one of my favourite museums in Vienna and I always try to visit their exhibitions. Together with the KHM (see below), this museum has been a frontrunner in the digital space. (You can read more about their digital strategy in my interview with Ivana Novoselac who is in charged of the Albertina’s digital presence.)
The collection of the museum is accessible online via a database. In her interview, Ivana Novoselac told me about exhibitions embracing augmented reality. Visitors can bring artworks to live via a mobile app. The same app called “Artivive” can also be used when during social distancing. You can download the app and bring famous the Albertina artworks on your laptop screen to life.
The current exhibitions and “Albertina classics” such as the Batliner Collection (with famous works from Monet to Picasso) are partly available online. For example, 22 selected artworks of the Batliner Collection can be accessed in high resolution and they are accompanied by a promotional video of the exhibition.
The digital presence has changed since the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020. At the end of March, it was possible to also access “Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, Hodler.” and “The Hahnloser Collection”. At the time of publishing this article, I could not access them anymore. I assume because the museum is working towards re-opening its doors at the end of May.
In my opinion, the digital presence of the Albertina is above average. However, I think it is an addition to the physical visit rather than a full substitute. I would need more information about the artworks, or maybe a digital tour of the exhibition. A personal tour with curators or with the museum director Klaus Schröder would be also a nice addition to their social media channel. (Similar to the Jewish Museum, see below).
The KHM offers a virtual tour via their free mobile app “KHM Stories” (no registration necessary, which is a plus). It was made to be used when visiting the museum but it works really well from home as well. A virtual character walks you through the museum and there are several tours to choose. The tours involve not only artworks but also information about the architecture of the building itself. Additional details can be accessed in writing or via audio stream. There are special tours for children as well. Furthermore, there is a second app called ARCHES which offers barrier-free access to the museum. In social distancing times, this offers more detailed information about the artworks. (However, the KHM Stories app is visually more appealing.)
In addition to the mobile apps, the KHM has published over 40 video interviews with art experts on their Youtube channel. Considering the museum’s focus, you may assume it covers more traditional or “classic” topics, but there are also videos covering contemporary art. “100 Meisterwerke”, also available on Youtube, is a collection of brief videos (in German only) explaining the masterworks of the museum.
In addition, the museum has published podcast episodes and “Inside Bruegel” enables digital access to the Bruegel artworks in high resolution. As many other museums, the KHM is represented on Google Arts and Culture with a detailed description of the Vermeer work “The Art of Painting” which is part of the KHM’s permanent collection. On Instagram, the museum does regular “deep dives” into the artworks.
“Moments, Objects, Stories” offers online access to various parts of the museum: rooms, artworks, details and further objects.
Overall, I think the KHM has the biggest and most elaborate digital offer. As I mentioned in my analysis of the Albertina, I do not think it can fully substitute the physical visit. But the KHM’s online activities are definitely something very interesting and worthwhile from home. Chapeau! Also internationally, this digital presence is very competitive.
The Jewish Museum in Vienna also ranks among my favourites. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, I had been looking forward to visiting the exhibition about the Ephrussi family – from the book “The Hare with Amber Eyes”.
The museum offers a digital walk through on Google Arts with texts and pictures about the Jewish history of Vienna and the display storeroom of the museum. However, my personal highlight is their social media presence. Since the start of the social distancing measures, the Jewish Museum Vienna has been uploading mini video clips (a few minutes long) about the Ephrussi exhibition (at the time of publishing this article, it was 12 videos). The museum director Danielle Spera walks digital visitors through the exhibition.
I really enjoyed these video clips, because it felt as if I was participating in an exclusive private tour with Danielle Spera. This social media interaction with fans of the museum is proof that it is not always necessary to invest a lot of money in an elaborate digital platform. I think what we were all looking for while museums were closed was not only digital access but a personal, intimate insight into the museum. In real life, personal guided tours with a museum director are rare occasions. Because of the lockdown, we all got to meet the director digitally and learn more about the exhibition.
A Bit More Digitally Active than Usual – Belvedere and MAK
I guess many of the organisations were overwhelmed with having to close from one day to the other and find a way to compensate for closing their doors. From March until beginning of May, some of these websites evolved. For example, the MAK added more videos on Youtube. The app to access the collections crashed, unfortunately, when I tried it.
Also, the Belvedere Museum, one of the most famous Austrian museums, has worked on its digital “doors”. At the end of March, the Belvedere tried to advertise a video as a “digital tour”. At the time of publishing, they had a library of video clips from their Facebook and Instagram stories presenting one artwork per day. The museum’s collaboration with Artivive is, similar to the Albertina, also part of the digital presence. However, given the size and reputation of the museum, I would have expected more in terms of their digital strategy.
“Closed but Active – but not Really Active”
An expression which seemed omnipresent on the websites of many organisations in the arts and the cultural space. Unfortunately, for many it was a mere label. On the websites of the Leopold Museum and the Kunsthaus Wien, there was some content available – for example, access to high resolution pictures and written information at the Leopold Museum. However, I would call this additional information to the exhibitions rather than an active digital presence.
Summing up, I would like to conclude that this article and my related research showed the advantage of those institutions which were already occupying themselves with a digital presence before the outbreak of Covid-19. Even though digital channels seem simple, the effort needed to not only develop a digital strategy, establish the cannels and also operate them successfully should not be underestimated. A successful online presence cannot be developed over the course of a few weeks. What has been a crash course for many cultural organisations during the social distancing measures, can be seen as a positive sign. I think digital approaches will be more appreciated in the future and, hence, taken more seriously.