Impact of confinement on museums. Based on reports from UNESCO, ICOM and NEMO

In many countries, confinement is coming to an end. This week, many museums have already started to reopen their doors. The time has come to assess the results of the effects of confinement.

During the second half of May, important international cultural organizations, such as UNESCO, ICOM and NEMO published the results of the surveys that have been carried out, with the purpose of evaluating the impact that the containment measures have had due to COVID-19 on the museum sector. UNESCO has surveyed 459 museums from 5 continents, ICOM 1,600 institutions located in 107 different countries across different continents and NEMO has received data from 1000 respondents from 48 European countries. The reports analyze all kinds of issues related to the current situation of museums and their staff, forecasts about the economic consequences, security, and the use of digital technologies. In this post, I do a brief review of the three documents with a special focus on the trends in the use of technologies.

Reopening and online mode

Confinement measures forced the closure of 90% of museum institutions around the world (UNESCO, 2020). At the beginning of this situation, museums were unequal starting points in terms of the online format. At the end of the confinement, when determining in which direction their future activities are going to be developed, especially in what refers to the online mode , decisive factors have resulted in determining: how the work teams are created and organized, the distribution of responsibilities between the staff, the budget and the availability of digital resources.

Creation of teams

The forced passage to the incorporation of the online mode has led museums to rethink the responsibilities of the staff and, placing themselves in this context, they have considered as a priority task the development of strategies that would allow them to maintain contact with the public. Asked by ICOM if specialized personnel are available in the field of digital activities, almost 80% of the museums have stated that they have hired staff teams dedicated to digital activities, while the remaining 18% have answered that they do not have this type of personnel (ICOM, 2020).

Almost 80% of European museums have modified the tasks of the staff according to current needs and, more than 30% have specifically elaborated the tasks of the staff to carry out joint activities with the digital sector (NEMO, 2020).

Strategies for the use of digital resources

During confinement, almost all museums recycled existing digital materials such as: online collections , 360 ° tours, virtual museums, online publications, digital exhibits, and virtual materials published on the Google Arts & Culture platform. Practically all the museums have used the collected materials and have started to develop new strategies. Countries with limited resources (especially those located on the African continent) have dedicated 95% of their activity to processing the materials already created.

In terms of budgets, only 5% of the surveyed museums have spent more than 15% of their resources to develop digital communications (ICOM, 2020). A similar number of European museums (16%) have increased their budget to promote digital strategies (NEMO, 2020).

The limited nature of human and financial resources during confinement has forced museums to opt for technologies that do not require additional expenses or special experience and skills (for example, hashtags on social networks or strategies that use existing virtual collections) and to dedicate less attention and effort to those resources whose use and creation requires time and money (for example, podcasts) (NEMO, 2020).

Immersion in virtual space

After the first three weeks of confinement, 80% of the museums were already using virtual resources very actively. The most complete list of these resources is provided by the NEMO report (online education, virtual exhibitions, virtual tours, podcasts, YouTube programs, newsletter, live content, incorporation of pieces in virtual collections, hashtags on social networks and all kinds of contests).

During confinement, the museums have rapidly begun to develop virtual exhibitions and tours (NEMO, 2020). Above all, it is worth highlighting the online live events that have begun to be launched and are considered by the three organizations as a possible format for future development. While podcasts and newsletters reportedly remain at the same level.

UNESCO has highlighted three groups of creative activities that have emerged during confinement: the use of ‘an unconventional vision’, robots for tours in empty rooms; and by curators, experiences or online exhibitions, such as «Cocktail with curators» (Frick Collection, New York); or presentations of virtual collections in video game format (Angermuseum, Germany with Animal Crossing) (UNESCO, 2020).


Graph 1. Distribution of digital resources (Source: UNESCO, 2020)


According to the data provided by NEMO, the key to successful interaction with the public lies in creating large amounts of content. The more content there is, the more the audience will pay attention to it.

During confinement, the virtual space has also hosted all the work events, workshops and conferences that were already scheduled. They were organized in the form of webinars or virtual meetings, thanks to the use of the Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts applications (UNESCO, 2020).

Significant growth of social networks

All three reports mention significant growth in social media. Fifty percent of museums around the world have increased their activity in the RRSS (ICOM, 2020), and in Europe 70% of museums have done so (NEMO, 2020). With this, 80% of cultural institutions have used Facebook and 20% have used Instagram. Considerable growth has been seen in the use of hashtags (NEMO, 2020). At the same time, such formats as live content on Facebook, audio materials or video broadcasts on YouTube have diversified the media on social networks (UNESCO, 2020).

The final assessment of the popularity of the use of digital resources is reflected in figure 2. (NEMO, 2020).

Graph 2. The popularity of the use of virtual resources in museums. (Source: NEMO, 2020).


What else do the figures in the reports say?

All three reports show that confinement has led many museums around the world to dive into the digital ocean and begin to transform already available resources and create new formats to interact with the public.

Apart from the increase in the presence of museums on the Internet, there are inequalities in the museum sector with respect to investments in ICT.

The implementation of a digital policy presupposes a global thinking focused (1) on the digitization of collections, (2) on the inventory of collections, (3) on a minimal IT infrastructure (photography, scanning, computers), ( 4) in sufficiently stable access to the Internet and (5) in dedicated personnel, with the minimum skills, to carry out this type of operations (UNESCO, 2015). Many museums have not yet inventoried their collections, while large museums have teams dedicated exclusively to their strategy. They have allocated a lot of funding to the digitization of their collections and social networks, which has allowed them to substantially increase the number of visitors to their websites during the lockdown period (for example, the Louvre saw a ten-fold increase in visits to its website in the first days of confinement in France. Later, it stabilized at triple its average.)

A message of encouragement

Despite existing inequalities, small museums should not be discouraged. Online services and social networks provide many opportunities for each museum to find its way and its audience.

In a recently published article, which deals with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, Claire Lanier, the community manager, spoke about the new initiatives that the museum has implemented during the confinement and that have allowed for a significant increase in online visits .

The main digital strategy has been the search for new paths that would allow the public to express their creative potential. The initiatives that have become particularly popular are the workshops for drawing or interpreting the works of art in the collections using the hashtag mettwinning . Claire noted that during confinement, how to address the public was extremely important. The tone had to be authentic and the events that were taking place had to be discussed and explained.

Throughout the confinement, the museum has also started to experiment with new formats and has launched live events, especially those that take place on Instagram and are now enormously popular.

It can be seen that the trait that characterizes the new ways of interaction with the public under the conditions imposed by confinement is the humanization of digital experiences . Increasing attention and effort is devoted to establishing trusting relationships with visitors, developing creative skills (see hashtags for art interpretation), setting up drawing workshops, and cultivating poetic gifts. Another important aspect is the development of empathy, in the ability to understand the emotional needs of the public. For this reason, it is no coincidence that the formats of live events with a human presence (virtual tours, creative workshops, musical concerts) are enjoying increasing demand.

Very soon, many museums will resume their activities. Why not invite visitors to enter the museum on opening day, and live this special moment together, sharing all the emotions live?