As you all probably know, Italy is in strict lockdown since the beginning of March. This means forced closure for all museums. Many museums have then started organising Facebook Lives and virtual visits from their closed galleries.
We want to share with you a few tips we got from our experience of organising a virtual visit for 20 students of the master in museum studies at RCS Academy Business School. The museum involved was the wonderful Poldi Pezzoli House Museum in Milan.
Many museums closed for the Coronavirus crisis choose to share videos from the closed galleries via Instagram or Facebook Live sessions. These are good options if your staff can access the museum. In our case, together with the museum staff we decided instead to organise a purely virtual visit using the Google Arts & Culture StreetView 360° images.
The basic idea is to have a real museum guide at her home sharing the screen of the museum galleries via Google Arts & Culture 360° StreetView to a class of students connected with a video-conferencing software.
Compared to a visit broadcast directly from the galleries you have advantages and disadvantages.
The advantages are:
1) you do not need to go in the galleries, so it’s much more flexible in terms of timings and organisation.
2) you have high quality images shot by Google, while images shot with the smartphone used in live sessions can be sometimes not so great.
3) Audio is also usually better than the one you get with the smartphone.
One significant disadvantage is that 360° images tend to become “old” quite quickly, in the sense that the museum changes positions of some artefacts, opens new areas, etc. It’s important to mention this and use it as an educational feature to make people understand that museums are live institutions, always changing themselves.
We used the ZOOM videoconference software. Zoom is powerful, easy to use and easy to share. The only problem is that the free version has a 40 minutes limit, which can be annoying (it’s been lifted up for American K-12 schools now due to the Coronavirus emergency). There is plenty of other software out there, like Skype, Google Hangouts etc, with different features and pricing options. It is essential that you feel confident with the system before using it.
That’s why we had a trial tour the day before the actual test, with the guide selected by the museum and 3 other people, in order to simulate a group visit. As with anything else, careful preparation is essential to avoid problems. Unexpected things can always happen – we recommended the guide, in case she got stuck on something, to ignore it and carry on with something else (for example if she wasn’t able to position herself exactly in front of a painting, she could carry on with the description or change painting, without trying too hard to find the perfect spot). Nothing is more annoying than watching someone trying to make a digital thing work in vain.
People connected from home ideally should have the video on and the mic muted. The video is important because it gives the guide and the other participants the feeling that people are there and following – with remote connections you have always the suspect that other participants are no longer there, and for the guide is important to get a visual feedback for her words, for example if she makes a joke. Having the mic muted is a necessity for big groups, because any environment noise coming from the participants can be very annoying.
The guide should have a good computer, because the screen sharing together with using 360° degrees views of Google Arts and Culture can be challenging. Connection should be very good and reliable – try to have a smartphone ready to be used as emergency hotspot if connection fails. The guide should also have earphones with mic to provide a better audio experience to visitors and avoid any feedback sound.
It is important for the guide to keep the user attention high, and you should do this by having the screen image in front of your visitors in motion as much as you can. This means that to keep going through the museum is OK, for example exploring a single room by moving around instead of stopping in a certain position, because it offers a more compelling visual experience to people watching. When you stop somewhere, use your mouse (which is shown to your visitors by the system) to point at details and keep the eyes of your visitors locked on what you’re saying.
Google Arts & Culture offers an amazing feature: the possibility of zooming paintings images to a very high detail. This was definitely the highlight of our tour: the possibility of showing minute details of the artwork, normally quite difficult to appreciate in real life, definitely gave a special feeling to the experience.
Another thing that proved useful was to have extra visual material at hand, so that you could switch from the StreetView experience to it. In our case, some photos of the museum before and during the disastrous bombings of the Second World War.
As for the interaction with the visitor, you can choose to have them via chat, where visitors ask questions writing in the system chat, or by audio, where visitors unmute their mic and pose a question. Personally we would suggest this second interaction, because it doesn’t require the guide to keep an eye on the chat window as well, and it’s more similar to what happens during a real-life tour.
It is always a good idea to record the tour (all videoconferencing software allow that), so you can leave it to your students as a reference afterwards, edit some parts for marketing or re-watch it later by yourself to identify parts to be improved.
In conclusion, the forced closure of museums is shaking our sector, forcing it to explore and adapt to new ways of communication. Nothing can substitute the experience of a real tour, but in the future virtual tours for disabled people or distance learning for schools geographically far from the museum could be a good legacy of this unfortunate moment.