How digital can help museums to reach new audiences
Agnès Alfandari, futureM, France
Digital technology provides an amazing opportunity for museums by allowing them to be ubiquitous, to exist in a variety of forms that correspond to the needs of different visitors, to engage with new audiences and, above all, to forge relationships that can be far more meaningful than traditional museum visits. For many years museums have developed many technological offers and tools for their visitors: richer and richer websites, mobile tools, apps, in-gallery displays… And even if we know that digital is not a magical answer, we also know now for sure, thanks to many studies, that those offers really help people to make the most of their visit, prepare it, share it, and engage with art, culture and knowledge in a larger way… But how many of those tools have brought new audiences to museums, people uncomfortable with the museum, uninterested in it? Addressing the needs of someone who is already, in a way or another, connected with the museum is one thing, tailoring something to someone you don’t know and who doesn't know you, has never heard of you, and has never even wanted to know you… That’s another challenge.
Keywords: audience development, social networks, mobiles, Nintendo, Louvre
Digital technology provides an amazing opportunity for museums by allowing them to be ubiquitous, exist in a variety of forms that correspond to the needs of different visitors, engage with new audiences, and, above all, forge relationships that are far more meaningful than traditional museum visits. Digital technology offers cultural institutions new ways of reaching an important goal: to make artworks and artefacts available and understandable, and to share and build knowledge with as many people as possible for mutual exchange and enrichment.
For ten, fifteen, twenty years, museums have developed many technological offers and tools for their visitors: richer and richer websites, mobile tools, apps, in-gallery displays. And even if we know that digital is not a magical answer, we also know now, for sure, thanks to many studies, that those offers really help people to make the most of their visit, prepare it, share it, and engage with art, culture, and knowledge in a larger way. But how many of those tools have brought new audiences to museums—people uncomfortable with the museum, uninterested in it? Addressing the needs of someone who is already in some way connected with the museum is one thing; tailoring something to someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know you, has never heard of you, and has never even wanted to know you—that’s another challenge.
The development of the Internet in the 1990s allowed museums to create websites that took them outside their physical walls, making them accessible at any place and time and in a variety of languages. Over time, museum websites tried to meet the needs of different audiences, providing custom-designed features and programs for people who were not necessarily regular museumgoers or art-history specialists, but also children, scholars, teachers, and so on.
Although websites are wonderful tools for meeting visitors and amateurs’ needs, they are of relatively little help in reaching new audiences. Even if the number of online visitors increases from year to year, it is, for the most part, always the same people visiting. In a sense, the people who view the official website (whether future visitors or not) are already won over: they have taken the step of finding out about the museum. But how can we reach people who are not yet interested in museums or who know of us but feel uncomfortable with the institutional site?
For many museums, social networks provide a solution to this issue.
Although almost all of the visitors to the Louvre website have already been to the museum itself, the same is not true of our friends and fans. With platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, or Instagram, for example, the Louvre can reach new, younger, and more remote audiences (Europe, the Americas, etc.) who may never have visited the museum but take an interest in what’s happening there. The tone is lighthearted, anecdotal, and entertaining, providing a complementary approach to the more conventional style of the official site. The Louvre gives its Facebook fans insight into its everyday life, the latest deals and news and behind-the-scenes information. The idea is not so much to prepare or follow up a museum visit, but to foster friendly, sociable exchange. Members, fans, and friends get information directly on their personal pages or spaces. Rather than having them coming to the Louvre, the Louvre goes to them, but the most important point is that the viral effect of sharing content with friends multiplies the museum’s chances of reaching new audiences.
Museums have known for a long time that in order to reach new audiences, they must go out and find them, by being present on sites and platforms other than those of the museum. Likewise, videos or programs made for the official website can be shared much more widely. Modules designed for teachers, for example, can be available on educational sites, while concerts performed at the Louvre could appear on sites devoted to music.
The possibility of going and finding new audiences has considerably changed and strengthened in recent years with the advent and rapid development of mobility. The “anytime, anywhere” principle has total relevance here, together with another essential aspect—the fact that devices such as smartphones and tablets are personal, every-day objects, so by providing content for these devices the museum is once again moving into the personal, private sphere. This is an ideal way of creating a closer, more personal relationship.
Viewing the Louvre website and having the Louvre app on your phone are two completely different things. The first Louvre application, which was published in 2009 and has been downloaded by over four million people, provides a general overview of the museum. We’ve realized that these applications, as with the social networks, help us reach a different audience than that of the website. Seventy percent of the people who visit the Louvre website view the French version, but the applications are mostly used by foreign users. The content focuses on discovering the palace and the collections rather than preparing a visit, and the offer is geared to mobile or home use, rather than principally aimed at on-site users.
At the museum itself, mobile tools are mainly used for audio guidance. Audio guides help people find their way around the museum and provide visitor trails and commentaries. Although this service is a longstanding traditional favorite in museums, we thought it could also be a way to engage with new audiences.
In 2007, thanks to the sponsorship of Korean Air, the museum updated its audio guide with new visitor trails and new, more dynamic commentaries recorded in the museum’s rooms by museum specialists, such as curators and guides, who share their passion for the Louvre. The former audio device was replaced by a new multimedia guide with a screen that could show pictures of the artworks, interactive animations, and floor plans.
In 2012, the Louvre made another major change, offering its audience an audio guide on Nintendo 3DS XL based on the existing content (available in eight languages: French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, Korean, and French Sign Language), but with additional features such as indoor location, three-dimensional (3D) reconstructions, 3D photos of the galleries, and high-definition images of the artworks. The audio guide can be rented in the museum, downloaded on the user’s smartphone (iOS or Android), and bought as a cartridge for Nintendo DS.
The choice of a game console as an audio-guidance tool was in perfect alignment with the Louvre outreach strategy and its desire to develop a more friendly relationship with its visitors. The DS is a solid and fun-to-use console, one of the most popular in the world; it was the perfect answer to the Louvre’s desire for a familiar and attractive tool.
Moreover, the buzz likely to be sparked by the original association between the Louvre—a rather classical museum that some people may find a little austere—and Nintendo—which conveys a playful, fun image—seemed to fulfill two goals: to publicize the service and attract people unfamiliar with the Louvre. As it happened, there was considerable media coverage, especially by media that rarely mention the Louvre, let alone its audio guide! (e.g., gamer sites, platforms for teens, general-interest media, and the foreign press)
Audio guidance is not exactly new in museums; in fact, it’s sometimes seen as a rather outdated form of outreach. Nintendo helped shake up this image, giving the Louvre a cooler, more accessible public persona. The reasoning was as follows: “I have a DS, I know how to use a DS, I’m comfortable with my DS -> the Louvre has DSs, I know how to use the Louvre, I’m comfortable with the Louvre.” One year after the introduction of the new audio guide, the Louvre has noted an increase of more than 50 percent in on-site rentals of the service. The increase of the take-up rate was one of the goals, so we were very happy with this result. But even more interestingly, the study conducted one year after the launch to take stock of the whole project provided completely unlooked-for insights!
One insight related to the profile of the users. Usually, audio-guide users are, on the one hand, tourists discovering the museum, and on the other hand, museum regulars. Here, the study shows an important part of teens (15 percent), young and foreign museum regulars (21 percent), and technophiles on a first-time visit (17 percent). On the whole, the study pointed out that more than two-thirds of the users were not usual guide takers, and the latter category (the technophiles) were not even regular museumgoers. With visitors under thirty years of age making up for 60 percent of the Louvre audio-guide users, the DS sustains and increases the number of young users, and also allows the emergence of new users, new visitors, and new motivations for visiting the Louvre: visiting the Louvre with a modern and efficient tool (80 percent), having more fun (85 percent), testing the console (42 percent), etc.
The partnership with Nintendo will hopefully also include the production of a console game. The game won’t be directly linked to the museum visit, but will be another way of publicizing the Louvre in a completely new and original form that is likely to appeal to non-museumgoers.
These projects and initiatives share the same goal: to improve access to the museum and its collections in as many ways as possible, and to find means of exchange and communication that can reach all kinds of people.
But as innovative as those initiatives are, they still follow the same logic, which is the museum asking itself “What can I provide to my audience?” Perhaps now is the time for a change.
Being present on social networks means opening the door to people’s creativity and personal expression. Visitors post photos of their trip to the Louvre on Instagram and share them widely, and their original take on the Louvre tends to be a far cry from what the venerable institution usually says or shows of itself. Our Facebook fans make animated films, for example, to show what the museum and its collections have inspired in them. This precious mutual enrichment can only exist through such exchange and openness. In a sense, this tallies with the concept of open data (i.e., making our data, our common heritage, freely available to all, for a wide range of uses and purposes). Several major museums had already widely explored this road, and others should follow suit.
For decades of thinking in terms of cultural outreach, museums have asked themselves what they could bring to people. It seems like it is now time to ask what people can bring to museums.
A. Alfandari, How digital can help museums to reach new audiences. In Museums and the Web Asia 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published March 1, 2015. Consulted .