Museums sell courses and virtual tours to increase income during the pandemic. Here’s what they learned about what works


Since the pandemic forced museums to close their doors last spring, a growing number of institutions have been trying to make up for lost revenue by selling tickets to view their exhibits online. If successful, the business model could provide a new source of revenue in the future and support new digital investments.

But, let’s face it, it’s a tough sell. For an audience accustomed to seeing museum artifacts in all their IRL splendor, a stroll through the Google Street View version of Dendur Temple is unlikely to live up to it. And it’s just as hard to imagine an audience that isn’t the typical museum audience paying $ 10 to watch a video of a curator browsing an exhibit when there are more sophisticated offerings that compete for attention (and dollars) online.

Nonetheless, the exceptional circumstances forced museums to explore the depths of their ability to generate revenue. With millions of people bored and stuck inside – last March, visitors to the Louvre’s website more than increased tenfold, while visitors to the British Museum’s website grew 137% – many sought to capitalize on increasing online traffic.

In the UK, where most museums depend on at least some degree of government support, institutions have had an added incentive to experiment with new business models. In a leaked letter from the Culture Secretary to museums last August, Oliver Dowden warned that if institutions did not show that they were “looking for every opportunity to maximize alternative sources of revenue,” the government might reconsider a additional financial support to the sector.

So far, the experiments have had mixed results. The Design Museum in London has managed to sell more than 5,000 tickets for its online programs since the first lockdown in March. Today, online visitors can access a virtual tour of its electronic music exhibit for £ 7, and for £ 5 can immerse themselves in a 360-degree digital version of the museum and “walk” through its exhibit ” Designs of the Year “. The museum also offers tickets (usually priced around £ 5) for its lecture program and other live events.

The strategy generated “much needed revenue to support the museum during the shutdown,” a museum spokesperson told Artnet News.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum in New York has had some success with a program of virtual tours it was launched in June. 60-minute group tours include live discussions on a topic based on a special collection or exhibit, and cost $ 300 per group of up to 40 people ($ 200 for students). Between July and December, the museum served some 116 groups with this option, generating between $ 23,000 and $ 34,000. During the same period, he ran 156 of his 45-minute tours for younger school groups, which cost $ 200 per class (and were free for New York public schools).

It is not known if virtual tours of other museums get the same appeal. Despite saying he was ‘popular’ and ‘doing well’, a spokesperson for the National Gallery in London declined to share attendance figures for his £ 8 online tour. of his Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition which was launched in December. And it’s hard to see these virtual tours have the same appeal once people return to museums in person.

Street view of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna on Google Arts and Culture.

Focus on expertise

As the pandemic continues and e-learning becomes an increasing part of everyday life, museums are also seeing the potential to monetize their educational expertise through their online offerings. The Met saw its revenue increase last year by offering paid online classes for children and adults, and its latest set of studio workshops and art history classes sold out within days.

Elsewhere, the Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia was quick to move its in-person adult education classes on art and art history online as the pandemic began. Live online courses have proven to be incredibly popular and have raised over $ 600,000 since their launch last March, more than double the revenue generated from in-person courses in 2019.

The institution’s chief business strategy and analyst, Will Cary, told Artnet News that Barnes was “surprised” at the interest in online courses, which in addition to making up for lost revenue admissions and events, helped him connect with more students than already. Between April and December, more than 2,600 students from 39 states and six countries took courses, and 60% of those enrollments were from students who had never taken a Barnes course before.

Encouraged by these results, the Barnes will continue to offer online classes even after in-person classes resume. Cary does not expect a significant drop in registrations. “We expect that there will be a lot of students who will continue to take courses online. in-person lessons.

Notre Dame Cathedral, as seen in the Assassin's Creed Unity video game.  Image courtesy of Ubisoft.

Notre-Dame cathedral seen in the video game Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Image courtesy of Ubisoft.

Get with the players

Forced online migration last year has been an opportunity for institutions and the public to test digital waters, and their experiences have shown some potential. But if they want to make their digital content a source of revenue in the future, they need to think strategically about how to retain their visitors (and attract new audiences).

While the expression “virtual tours of museums “was among the most searched Google searches in 2020, interest peaked in March, perhaps when the novelty of clicking around a virtual gallery wore off. It should be noted, however, that research interest in “virtual learning” has not declined as sharply, indicating that there is more potential for a sustained interest in virtual learning. line.

But museums must think outside the box if they are to continue to inspire consumers to invest in their online content. There is certainly potential for digital experiences as alternative revenue sources for museums, but they need to improve, ”said Erinrose Sullivan, head of museums and cultural heritage at SO REAL, a technology company that offers 3D scanning and conversion services, at Artnet News.

Museums would do well to learn from other industries. “Gaming is a prime example,” Sullivan says, noting that three of the most popular video game franchises –Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, and Unexplored-have story-driven base storylines that engage and excite consumers enough to keep playing. Assassin’s Creed even offers something akin to what museums are trying to do now in its ‘discovery tours’, which allow the user to explore the virtual world of the game and discover culturally significant sites.

Elke Schmidt curator and director of Plazzo Pitti Museum and Gallerie degli Uffizi Museum attends the presentation of "The Medici game" at Palazzo Pitti on October 29, 2019 in Florence, Italy.  Photo by Roberto Serra - Iguana Press / Getty Images.

Elke Schmidt, curator and director of the Plazzo Pitti museum and the Gallerie degli Uffizi museum attends the presentation of “The Medici Game” at the Palazzo Pitti in 2019 in Florence. Photo by Roberto Serra – Iguana Press / Getty Images.

Museums could also create digital experiences that go beyond mimicking the in-person museum experience online. Some have already experimented with the idea, including the Uffizi Galleries, which unveiled a murder mystery video game set at the Pitti Palace Museum in 2019.

Sullivan cites the game Avakin Life, a type of Second Life virtual universe where you can choose clothes and furniture for your space, including artwork. “I have two pieces by Paul Klee in there, something just impossible in the real world,” Sullivan says. “The artwork could be incorporated into a game that can enrich a player’s online life and even play a vital role in the experience itself, an incredibly exciting way to attract a new generation of fans. of art. “

And if museums see digital as a way to generate additional income, they could also look for returns beyond the pockets of their visitors. Sullivan’s company uses technology to create “digital twins” of objects in museum collections, which could then be licensed to third parties such as the game or film industries.

This approach could “tap into a whole new set of funding, while raising awareness of the collections to new audiences,” says Sullivan. “As the world becomes more and more digital, there are many financial opportunities. Museums just need to see how they are harnessing this in new ways. “

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