Ever since the first UK lockdown in March 2020, researchers from the University of Warwick have worked in collaboration with peers at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to analyse the fates of exhibitions forced online by Covid restrictions.

The study, Digital Responses of UK Museum Exhibition to the COVID-19 Crisis March-June 2020, examined the experiences of 21 museums which had planned to open temporary exhibitions between March and June 2020 but instead transitioned these shows to online events.

Analysis of the exhibitions includes how Covid was considered, how content was presented, and the application of themes such as access, embodiment and human connection.

Lockdown learning

Perhaps predictably, the research team found online exhibitions held in May and June featured more content, suggesting museums had benefited from extra time to prepare for the transfer online.

While the majority of online exhibitions were deemed a success, researchers concluded online alternatives are hamstrung by lacking the customary social and embodied experience of the physical museum. Visitors, it is noted, miss the excitement of travelling to an event, a welcome from staff, chatting with other visitors, and the gift shop or café experience.

The addition of elements unavailable in person – behind the scenes videos, virtual guided tours – did, however, offer some amends for the omission of aspects some consider integral to a museum trip.

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“The Covid-19 lockdowns have created a crucial turning point in the museums sector, as they now see themselves working in a physical-digital overlap,” notes the study’s lead author, PhD student Ellie King.

“It is interesting to note how in being forced to shut, museums focused their online provisions around existing physical exhibitions.”

King believes museums and other cultural attractions will “continue to adapt in light of a post‐Covid world where practices, both digital and physical, will undoubtedly shift”. Seeing the “digital exhibition world as an opportunity to provide unseen materials and attract audiences who may not be able to visit in person” will, she adds, be key to future success.

Staff training or hiring, framed through the financial challenges imposed by a year of sweeping closures, is an area the researchers spotted as having the potential to derail digital leaps for some organisations.

“30% of museums have changed staff tasks to provide services online. Despite this, there are concerns that staff teams are not fully equipped to handle such monumental changes,” states Professor Mark Williams. “This highlights the practical challenge of enabling the rise of digital content for museums, which will be difficult for the sector in such a stretched resource environment.”

The full research article, published in Curator: The Museum Journal, is available here.

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