In March, when much of the population was sheltering-in-place, dozens of articles were published in the online press about virtual museum visits. To see for yourself, just enter the keyword “virtual visits” in any search engine.
The euphoria unleashed by virtual tours has raised doubts in the professional community about its effectiveness and demand. Last week, an article entitled “People Don’t Want Virtual Museum Tours: Do This Instead” was published, in which, based on Google Trends data, it is stated that the peak of public interest in virtual museum visits only lasted 4 days in March. Despite the obvious limitations of the statistical results and without specifying how the author defines virtual visits, the article declares as a final verdict that the public does not want them.
I find it interesting to study this topic in more detail since, in my opinion, the results presented give a very vague idea of the current situation. As the author acknowledges, the data provided by Google Trends allows relative comparisons to be made and assesses the situation from a general market overview, but does not allow for the analysis of the type of virtual visit, its quality and its importance.
To test whether the public’s interest in virtual visits really has decreased, we resorted to similarweb, another tool that analyzes web traffic. The platform artsandculture.google.com, which stores the largest number of virtual visits to museums, shows a completely different picture. In the graph, we see a significant jump in web traffic as of March. We can also see the continual progress of this not only globally, but by country. Analyzing these data, we understand that it is a quantitative evaluation that allows us, just as before, to study statistical trends but not the user experience.
Another question that needs to be asked is: What virtual tour format are we talking about? In the article examined, there is no clear definition and explanation of what is meant by “virtual tour”.
This aspect is very important because today we can talk about different formats. The traditional format is that of 360º photographs and videos which can be viewed from the browser. The tour includes visits to the different rooms of the museum and has wayfinding tools (help for orientation and movement) which is implemented using arrows and hot spots. This type of tour, which we call “the classic tour”, can be viewed on the vast majority of websites, including artsandculture.google.com, where more than 2,000 virtual tours of both museums and other important monuments are stored.
The traditional virtual tour takes place in empty rooms, without any interaction or storytelling. This type of tour is a boring activity. It evokes no emotion and is immediately leaves the visitor with a feeling of boredom. Perhaps this format may be of interest to some academics or specialists in history and art, however, this format is obviously not suitable for the general public, who wants exciting adventures and memorable experiences.
With the arrival of the Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders, the new format of the virtual guided tour was born, and is carried out through a live transmission. This model was developed and launched in the early days of confinement by the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. In this format, visits are organized based on 360 ° photos, taken by the museum team and available on its website since 2017. The tour takes place in groups of 40 people for children and 80 for adults. The chat feature of the Zoom app allows participants to share their questions in real time.
The virtual guided tours are organized several times a day with a variety of themes. According to Vladimir Opredelénov, deputy director of digital development at the Pushkin Museum, these types of virtual visits are the most requested and popular experiences that have been carried out during lockdown.
Another interesting project is the one launched by Patrimonigencat on April 23 to commemorate Saint George’s Day, the cultural festival of love in Catalonia. The virtual visit, by the hand of the official guide Xavi Casado, toured the rooms of the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya live and was broadcasted live on the youtube patrimonigencat channel. The visit, which lasted 30 minutes, was carried out on the Zoom app using Google panoramas and the 3D model of the Chapel of Saint George, scanned by the team from the new technologies department. The virtual tour has been a great success with more than 8,000 views in three weeks.
To close, there is one last interesting example – virtual experiences offered by the Russian company “Moscow through the eyes of an engineer”. Its founder, Airat Bagautdinov, says that “attending a guided tour is as important as going to the theater or the park.” Despite the fact that the project is only 4 years old, his team has launched more than twenty guided tours, offers activities for children, has its own guide school, and headquarters in Saint Petersburg and Kazan.
With the start of the shelter-in-place orders, the company immediately switched from face-to-face guided tours to the online format. The visits, accompanied by Airat and his team, are broadcasted live on Facebook and YouTube every afternoon. They use Street View, views of the interior of buildings from Google Maps, and virtual tours of open access museums and historical monuments.
The themes of the tours are very varied, from the history of Moscow architecture to the analysis of the works of historical figures such as Le Corbusier or Gaudí, which has also reached almost 9,000 views in recent weeks. Tours last about two hours and during breaks visitors share their impressions, ask the guide questions and exchange experiences. The number of attendees varies between 100 and more than 300 people per visit.
Based on the analysis of the three mentioned cases, and without having statistical traffic data, we clearly see that the new format of virtual tours with a guide, despite its recent release, is of great interest to the public. The key to success is based on good storytelling and engagement, which makes attendees follow it in its entirety with great interest. It is a model that presents new opportunities for cultural institutions and the exploration of the great variety of formats in which this type of visit can be packaged remains. Imagine a virtual tour guided by a famous person, a museum manager, a scientist, or even a comic actor. In the chat, you can organize track games, contests, prepare surprises. The virtual tour with a guide can be offered as a free online experience or that can be purchased and given to a friend who lives in another province or even another country.
These types of online visits can help institutions reach more audiences, attract attention to the opening of exhibitions, events and campaign launches and, without a doubt, become an additional source of income.
The coronavirus has taken museums out of their comfort zone and has shown that the world of digital tools offers us endless opportunities. This is the ideal time to feed our creativity and start experimenting with new formats that the online experience offers us.