What are Russian museums doing during coronavirus lockdown? Interview with Vladimir Opredelenov, deputy Director of Digital Development, Pushkin State Museum of Visual Arts

Because of the coronavirus, humanity is in an unusual situation: millions of people are confined to their homes. Cultural institutions around the world have gone online, launched multiple virtual tours, and increased their activity on social media.

In Russia, the quarantine was decreed on March 17th. Are Russian museums prepared for this extreme situation? With this question in mind, I have addressed Vladimir Opredelenov, the deputy director of digital development at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Readers of my blog already had the chance to meet Vladimir in the post published in 2017. So, long before the epidemic broke out, we talked about the virtual tours prepared by the Pushkin Museum. This time I asked Vladimir for an interview, in full preparation for the quarantine, when he literally had only a few minutes of free time left. However, he agreed and told me what is happening right now in Russian museums.

Videoconference with Vladimir Opredelenov. The photo taken during the virtual tour of the Pushkin Museum. Photo: Irina Grevtsova

Irina Grevtsova: Is the Pushkin Museum ready to go into quarantine mode? What are your first steps?

Vladimir Opredelénov: We already took the first steps in developing products and services online a few years ago. A large collection of virtual tours of past exhibitions and the museum’s permanent exhibition is available on our website.

We are now developing a series of special online projects. Two weeks ago, as soon as we realized that quarantine was going to be decreed, we immediately began digitizing all the museum’s pieces 24 hours a day. Since then we have prepared virtual tours, recorded lectures and opened online exhibitions at the museum, which is now closed to the public.

Last Saturday we also launched a new online guided tour format with the use of panoramas that will be led live by our guides.

We have also launched the #НаединесПушкинским project (with Pushkin alone). It is a setup where exhibitions are published online, lectures are given, and guided tours are held while the museum is closed. We plan to launch two or three more projects of this type.

Project #НаединесПушкинским of the Pushkin Museum. Photo: Irina Grevtsova

Additionally, we are preparing a great online guide for the new exhibit from our Graphic Arts Department. The exhibition was shot behind closed doors and now its 3D model is being designed alongside virtual photo tours. When the virtual model is published, we can use it to organize guided tours with a wide range of interactive possibilities. And of course, during quarantine we are going to launch podcasts and broadcast uninterrupted online streaming.

I.G .: During our last conversation you mentioned that the Museum had not used the Google Arts and Culture platform to create the panoramas, but had designed its own technology. Why? (Google Arts & Culture is the largest free online platform on which museum panoramas around the world are available – note by I.G.)

O.: Firstly, the virtual tours created with the use of Google Arts & Culture are of poorer quality. In addition, Google only makes a recording of the pieces at a certain time, so the project is, so to speak, petrified. We, on the other hand, constantly change the exhibitions, create them on our own and upload them to the network. Also, in Google Arts & Culture you cannot upload other people’s panoramas, which for us is a great limitation. If we could upload our materials maybe we would start using this platform.

In Russia there is a website культура.рф where a large number of cultural events are available: podcasts, online broadcasts of cultural content and much more.

I.G .: Which company was responsible for recording the pieces from Russian museums?

O.: The recording of the pieces in most museums was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. In 2014, a comprehensive bi-annual financing and virtual tour program was launched. In our museum, the recording was carried out by the company museumplus.ru, which designed a special motor for us. In 2017, we taught museum workers how to take panoramic photos and how to use the system, and from then on, we made all temporary exhibitions on our own. On the official website of the Ministry of Culture, more than 400 virtual tours are now available for all kinds of monuments, museums, art galleries and architectural ensembles in our country.

Viritual tours on the portal cultura.ru Photo: Irina Gretsova

I.G.: So Russian museums don’t use Google Arts & Culture. This platform is not very popular.

O.: Google Arts & Culture was interested in attracting the most important Russian museums. Four or five years ago, the main museums in our country joined this project using Street View technology. The others, especially the little ones, were not of much interest to Google. One of the handicaps that weighed on the decision not to join, was that the recordings were made during very tight time slots, due to the fact that they only spent a couple of days working with a museum.

What does make participation in Google Arts & Culture attractive is being able to have the webpage on it, as this allows the indexing to be improved and increases the number of times it appears in the search engine.

G.: Are Russian culture portals translated into foreign languages?

O.: A large number of web pages are available in Russian and English. We do not have the ability to translate our content into all foreign languages, but the Pushkin Museum website, for example, is partially available in eight languages. Translating materials into non-national languages carries additional costs. If users need the translation of our web pages or any other online resource, they can use the Google translator to do an automatic translation.

G. What are the advantages of online mode?

O.: A very high level of accessibility. Anyone can connect from anywhere in the world at any time. It is also possible to organize events, wherever we are. From this point of view, it gives us an undoubted advantage. But it also has its drawbacks: people can get used to these amenities, the consumption of online content will grow and, after a certain time, when the museum is open, we will be forced to make online transmissions with empty rooms.

G.: Which online strategies (videos, podcasts, online exhibitions) are most effective?

O.: A thing is effective if it is well made and sells well. If people like it, if they believe in the product, they will use it. A quality product always ends up finding its user.

G.: You have been working with online audiences for a long time. What are their preferences now?

O.: Today there has been a great demand for guided tours with a real guide.

G.: Could you tell me a little more about guided tours of this type?

O.: The guided tour is transmitted live through a platform. To participate, you must sign up in advance. For each guided tour, between 30 and 40 people can register. The guide makes the tour using the panoramas of the museum and offering the public different images in any order. Thanks to this, you can generate the feeling that the visit takes place on the museum premises.

G.: So, in our times and in the circumstances in which we are, anyone can access free virtual tours and take a guided tour for their audience?

O.: Yes, of course. It is what we want to propose to all the museums in the country. In principle, any specialist capable of developing guided tours can easily do so online. We already talked during our last conversation about the idea of designing these types of tours. However, we have only been able to put it into practice now, in quarantine.

G.: Are all Russian museums ready to go online?

O.: It is difficult to comment on the situation of all museums. They are very diverse and all have different possibilities at their fingertips. Large museums have been able to quickly adapt to new circumstances and shift their activity to online space. Many programs have been created and very intense work has been done.

G.: What is quarantine going to teach museums and the public?

O.: I don’t know yet, we will see. At the very least, this situation will help spread the digital culture and help people learn how to use video conferencing calls and online communication services.

G.: And the last question. Let’s dream a little. Let us imagine that you have at your disposal all the necessary means and do not have to adhere to any type of financial limitations. What project, with the use of technology, would you carry out during the quarantine?

O.: Today, I am absolutely convinced that there are more than enough technologies capable of achieving a high level of public participation. What is missing is digital culture and basic knowledge on how to use these technologies. The main limitation that we face is that people do not have the necessary knowledge and do not want to learn something new that goes beyond fulfilling their usual activities. If people took the use of digital resources seriously now, there would not be so much of a stir and the technical services would not be overwhelmed.

For this reason, together with our colleagues from ICOM Russia, we have started a study on the digital skills of museum officials. The main objective of this project is to find out how digital technologies are now used in museums in order to prepare the corresponding educational programs with the data obtained.

Following Vladimir’s recommendation, I attended the webinar “Organization of online conferences and guided tours based on virtual tours”, in which more than 350 Russian colleagues participated. In this webinar, we learned how to create guided tours online without leaving home. This new guided tour format was adopted by the Pushkin Museum just a few days ago and has become especially relevant during the quarantine. I will tell more about this resource in another post.

Screen shot of the webinar “Organization of the online conferences and guided tours based on virtual tours” Photo: Irina Grevtsova

After this sprint interview, it can be concluded that Russian museums had already prepared a battery of measures to face the quarantine, offering hundreds of virtual tours, free training webinars, panoramic recordings of exhibitions and new educational resources. The quarantine has become a springboard for Russian museums to open up to new opportunities.

However, there is still a lot of work to do, to train museum officials and teach them how to use digital resources and tools.

We will be watching how things develop in Russia and we will surely be happy for the results of the future of our colleagues because, as Vladimir said, “now everything is literally boiling.”

Special Thanks

I want to express my deepest gratitude to Vladimir for this heartfelt and engaging conversation and for the enthusiasm and motivation he has dedicated to it.