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Museums & galleries in times of COVID-19...and BEYOND

Written by Maria Lopez-Monis

The past few weeks have seen the world change at a rapid pace. We all have had to adapt to the “new normal”, where Covid-19 is the main topic of conversation and gatherings are forbidden. Businesses and institutions have had to adapt as well – and the main way of doing so, when possible, has been embracing the virtual. Museums and galleries, despite their dusty old-fashioned reputation, are not an exception.

Virtual tours and tools in museums are not something new. For instance, Google Arts & Culture has been digitizing content for a few years now. What is new, however, is the increasing number of users that have turned to it since the global lockdown started. The same happens with museums across the globe. The Musée du Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the British Museum all have virtual tours available on their websites. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid has even opened its temporary exhibition, “Rembrandt and Amsterdam portraiture, 1590-1670”, through a free virtual tour.

These tools allow individuals stuck at home to wander around museum rooms and learn more information about the artworks. However, much more could be done to enhance these experiences. Up to now, these cultural wanders have been lonely and isolating – virtual visitors placed in front of a screen full of empty rooms where objects are displayed. Whereas this might sound ideal for some, some studies have shown how social interaction affects the way we experience a museum, making us engage with the objects in a different and more enriching manner (Heath and vom Lehn, 2004; Parry 2010). How could institutions develop more interactive and shared virtual experiences? This is where Polystream will be able to help.

What can Polystream do about it?

Polystream can change the way we live, learn, work, play, and visit museums. But how?

Given that video games themselves are considered “aesthetic spaces” that trigger emotions related to beauty and taste (Kirkpatrick 2011), it is only natural for them to become platforms where Art can be shared and discussed. Several institutions have already started using videogames as educational tools, for instance, High Tea (Wellcome Trust, London, UK); Before the Boycott: Riding the Bus (National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, US); and Great Fire of London (Museum of London, UK). In this case, the affective power of videogames – that is, their potential to change emotional states – is used to create a closer rapport with the subject and, therefore, facilitate the learning process (Kidd 2015).

Now, what if it was possible to combine the “affective” power and aesthetic nature of video games, and the benefits of social interactions, in order to create the perfect – and social-distancing-approved – museum experience?

The work of Polystream opens a world of opportunities. Imagine if, instead of solitary virtual tours, cultural institutions developed cloud video games in which visitors could pick up their favourite artefacts from the collection and display them in their own virtual gallery, to which they could invite other users. This would transform the virtual museum experience into a social one, triggering conversations among visitors and, who knows, even museum professionals that might use these platforms to share their knowledge with people all over the world. Seeing it from the museum’s perspective, this kind of initiative would create a bigger engagement from the public – which would feel as if it “owned” the collections in their virtual galleries – that could lead to donations and other forms of support. It would even mean a “democratization” of curatorship, making everyone able to create their own museum discourse.

These are challenging times for all. They are also an opportunity to explore new options that could establish deep and highly meaningful connections between people and museums.

Here, at Polystream, we are excited to see what comes next.

In the meantime here is a link to some great tours and experiences. Enjoy, but also imagine what they could be if we added a sprinkle of 3D interactivity to add more depth and colour to this already creative world: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/on-coronavirus-lockdown-the-top-online-museum-and-art-tours

Museums & galleries in times of COVID-19…and BEYOND

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