Museums in the virtual age

How about spending Sunday afternoon at the Royal Monastery of Brou? The historic site offers remote tours of its current exhibition, dedicated to the painter Suzanne Valadon. All you need to do is log in at the appointed time and you are on a videoconference with a handful of other visitors, comfortably installed at home. Your guide is not actually in the exhibition spaces either, he navigates in their digital reproduction and stops to comment on certain works, completing his remarks with historical documents which are displayed on the screen.

Despite the mediator’s enthusiasm, the experience turns out to be somewhat frustrating: interactions are limited (one can only intervene in writing and exchange face-to-face only at the end of the course). And, unlike in situ visits, it is impossible to approach the canvases to observe a detail or to take a side step to make an embarrassing reflection disappear. The participants nevertheless seem delighted. A 50-year-old warmly congratulates the guide: she found the experience more lively than most of the solo virtual tours already tested. Seduced by the beauty of the chapter house and the cloister, glimpsed during the walk, a retired couple announces that they are coming soon. “Nothing replaces real immersion in the heart of the works”, replies the mediator, relieved to see the site finally reopen its doors.

Like the royal monastery of Brou, many cultural places have taken advantage of the long months of closure to expand their online offer: podcasts, recordings of concerts, Mooc, 360-degree videos, video games, etc. “The health crisis has accelerated the digital development of museums and had a magnifying effect on what already existed, in particular thanks to the #culturecheznous platform, launched by the Ministry of Culture in April 2020”, notes Antoine Roland, director of the consulting and training agency Correspondances digitales.

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In slow-moving establishments, the projects have enabled unprecedented transversal cooperation between curatorial, exhibition curating and mediation services, etc. The Musée d’Orsay has encouraged digital formats that are likely to attract a new audience. , like #OrsayLive, a series of audiovisual creations in which musicians play in the middle of the works. Or the “Baudelairian Voices”, poems read by writers.

In this race for all-out innovation, interactivity is often the order of the day. The young audiovisual production company 11e District designs, for galleries and soon for museums, “embodied” virtual tours: welcomed by the art dealer, you can, depending on the route, deepen the work of one of the artists exhibited in video capsules. At Thierry Bigaignon, photographer Thomas Paquet takes a look behind the scenes of the manufacture of a darkroom or of the laboratory print. Other cultural places are betting on live. The Museum of the Great War of Meaux multiplies Facebook Live during which the mediator films himself walking through the collections using a camera attached to a rolling cart.

Previously reserved for technophiles, these new forms of mediation are appealing to an increasingly large audience. According to a study carried out in January by Correspondances digitales and the Gece institute among 10,000 people, 41% of French people regularly practiced one or more online cultural activities in 2020, a novelty for 28% of them, while they were only 21% during the first confinement. “Faced with this growing appetite, most establishments will keep the measures initiated a year ago, which come to prepare or extend the passage on site and make it possible to reach distant audiences: foreign visitors, but also people in prison, hospital… “, emphasizes Antoine Roland. In addition to the family audience, some fifteen retirement homes and more than 3,000 primary school students have benefited since November from remote visits offered by the Museum of Prehistory of Île-de-France, delighted to finally be able to respond to requests for establishments all over France.

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