The linkage between virtual and reality

hongliang Wu, Art museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy, China

When mankind entered the Internet Era, the new means of communication are indeed diverse. Following the website, SMS, blog, microblog, WeChat, those applicationsnot only became the "new game"which people lovedeeply, but also became an instant publishing, instant response, and highly handling personalized "new media." Therefore, it surely is a significant topic of howart museumscan incorporate these new forms of media,solve their own problems, promote communication with the audience, and provide a better, more flexible and convenient viewer experience. In short, the physical space of an art museum is limited, but the service space is unlimited. WeChat provides new possibilities of service and broadens the imagination space.

Keywords: Wechat, museum, art, communication, application

handlingSince the human race entered the Internet Era, new means of communication have been diverse. Following websites, SMS, blogs, microblogs, Wechat, and such applications became not only a “new game” that people love deeply, but also an instant publishing, instant response, and highly personalized “new media.” Therefore, how art museums can incorporate these new forms of media, solve problems, promote communication with the audience, and provide a better, more flexible and convenient viewer experience is a serious topic.

Conceptually, the ICOM (the International Council of Museums) defined the museum as early as 1974: “The museum does not pursue profit; it serves social and community development, and is a permanent institution open to the public. It gathers, protects, researches, disseminates and exhibits the material witness of humans and their environment, for the purpose of research, education and appreciation.” This definition puts services for the museum audience in a very important position. Mr. Fan Dian, general director of the National Art Museum of China, proposed the concept of “public art museum” after Chinese art museums opened to the public for free. He said, “The general public can experience art in a museum environment, which can be compared with a spiritual reading. We restore art in the museum space, and then, it gives back to the public. Thus the public museum may achieve the highest level for a museum.” Therefore, the most essential responsibilities of today’s art museums are to construct a more friendly and creative environment to serve the public.

Numerous art museums are limited when it comes to investing in media publicity, which is a fact unlikely to change in the near future. Art museums’ lack public relations staff, and the costs of promoting exhibitions and projects are obstacles in the competitive market. Thus, finding an effective and low-cost way to market is essential. The characteristics of the convenient, universal, and rapid growth of Wechat has helped build a strong connection between art museums and the general public. What’s more, the free application creates a new channel for publicity for art museums.

How can museums use the medium of Wechat effectively? There are two issues to take note of. Firstly, we need to understand the status of the development of Wechat. Secondly, we must know the working patterns and the dissemination needs of the museum.

Wechat is currently the most popular application software for the smartphone, offering free communication capabilities among registered users. Based on the user accumulation of Tencent QQ, Wechat has expanded rapidly. The current number of registered users has exceeded 700 million, making WeChat one of the essential software apps on a smartphone. Meanwhile, its two operating systems, OS X and Android, have also been very popular. In 2013, smartphone sales in China reached 239 million; today more than 800 million people own smartphones in China. If sales of tablet computers are taken into consideration, the number of users is even larger. The development of smartphones, including microblogs and Wechat, the popularity of smartphone applications, the acceleration of wireless network data transmission rates, and the launch of 4G networks by several major domestic telecom operators in 2014 all marked the arrival of a new era of wireless Internet, which is the foundation of the fast development of Wechat.

Secondly, we have to analyze the processes of project and public marketing for an exhibition to understand how many important points can be connected with Wechat for an exhibition: for example, the publicity before the opening of the exhibition project, demographics of visitors on the opening day, seminar activities, the promotion of public education, organization, and reporting. If the exhibition is a long one, we need to understand how to keep it vibrant and maintain audience attention, how to receive the complaints and suggestions put forward by the audience, and so on.

In general, the marketing practices of museums can be divided in two. The first is mass communication: spread information through newspapers, magazines, television, radio, Internet, etc. The problem is that today’s mass media lacks depth, so the value is diluted. Marketers often find that though they have put in a lot of effort, the results are not so apparent. The second practice targets a particular group of customers. It promotes the exhibition and finds out the impact of the exhibition through traditional print invitations, phone calls, and word of mouth. Features of this method are targeted, but its reach is small, its feedback is slow, and it is difficult to derive statistics.

With its use of wireless Internet technology and a large database of users, Wechat may solve these problems in exhibition dissemination and promotion, and recycle information in a timely way. It can enhance the quality of the museum’s services from the perspective of dissemination.

Take the current Wechat platform of the Beijing Fine Art Academy as an example; the exhibition information introduced by this platform can be quickly spread through Wechat circles to people who are interested in art, making the targeted audiences aware of exhibition information in the first instance. With deeper information provided by the museum, it also enables people to visit the exhibition with mobile apps: audiences can not only appreciate the exhibits, but also listen to a Chinese and English audio guide. Foreign audiences, no matter where they are, can easily receive information about exhibitions and feel a sense of realness and intimacy with the artworks in a museum space.

Of course, no matter how evocative the online audio guide is, it cannot replace the sense of intimacy and excitement created when people appreciate the original work. No one would refuse to visit Qi Baishi’s original artwork because he has seen the pictures of Qi Baishi’s artworks online, because the original artwork is unique and evokes unduplicable emotions. From this perspective, promotions based on wireless Internet networks will not decrease the number of visitors in museum; on the contrary, due to the widespread nature of exhibition information, more people will be attracted to visit the exhibition.

At the level of exhibition operations, the huge amount of mobile Internet users can already replace tour systems. Through the use of the information auto-reply function of the Wechat platform, the user’s smartphone becomes a multimedia wayfinding machine: navigation information can be sent to audiences’ mobile phones, along with a variety of visiting routes, and audiences can save or share this information on their smartphones. These functions could not be imagined in the tour systems of the past. For art museums, this can save the costs of purchasing, maintaining, and updating tour hardware. Audiences can not only listen to or read the exhibition information on their mobile phones, but also can save and use repeatedly, and share the information to let more people know about the exhibition. In reality, the audiences become secondary museum communicators on the Internet, thereby expanding the influence of the exhibition.

The Wechat public account “Micro Navigation” is based on the concept of making the tour platform of the exhibition site an entrance to the real-world experience. The audience can receive information about art exhibitions by following the account. This function of Wechat can completely replace all functions of traditional tour devices at the museum and support wider dissemination of information through the audience’s interpersonal communications. More importantly, this type of publicity depends on a “circle of friends,” which is more trustworthy and shields users from some uncontrollable factors created by “microblogs.” Because the information you receive is based on your friends, your teachers, and people that you trust, users snowball and enhance the breadth of dissemination.

“Qi Baishi’s Letters and Feelings Exhibition” was held at the Art Museum of the Beijing Fine Art Academy in 2014 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Qi Baishi’s birthday. Wechat played a very important role in this exhibition. At the exhibition, we not only created a Chinese and English audio tour and text-navigation function as mentioned above, but also added an interactive section. It is worth noting that the attraction of Wechat content itself and its transmission are equally important on the WeChat platform, which narrows the distance between the artist and the audience, and lets interested subscribers participate. We published the introduction to Qi Baishi’s life, named the Readme of Baishi, and the interpretations of the artworks, and on the following day the audience comments included “At 150 years old is Qi Baishi still alive?” and other topics. We also launched topics at key moments. For example, we introduced the mandarin duck works of Qi Baishi on Valentine’s Day and made lantern riddles of the Qi Baishi theme during the Lantern Festival. We even invited the audience to sign up on Wechat to attend discussions with the curatorial team, effectively interweaving the virtual and reality. These activities activated a static exhibition, broadened the impact, and enhanced its influence. Much of the audience went to the exhibition gallery thanks to a friend’s recommendation.


Figure 1: with “Qi Baishi’s Letters and Emotions Exhibition (人生若寄——齐白石的手札情思展),” “白石自述” series were released through Wechat


Figure 2: the event “Solving a picture puzzle and Receiving a gift” was conducted through Wechat in the January 15 in the lunar calendar

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Figure 3: a special show, ” 荷花鸳鸯图 lotus lovebirds painting(Qi Baishi),” was held on Valentine’s Day


Figure 4: the activity “Understaning Qi Baishi-communication with the planning team” was held through Wechat

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Figure 5: the event “Solving a Quiz and Receiving a Good book” was held under the theme of “Is Qi Baishi still alive at 150 years old?”

By using Wechat, museums gain additional benefits. Through the scanning function of Wechat, not only we can solve the problems of the scan code reader, but the action of barcode scanning will also link to the official Wechat of the art institution, which is helpful to increase the popularity of the account. Meanwhile, the “identity” for every work is formed simultaneously, and if the work is being lent, we can easily get information about the work through its digital ID, which is beneficial for art organizations in managing and presenting collections. These functions can be implemented on the user’s official Wechat platform and micro-tour platform.

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Figure 6: appreciating artworks with a real-time audio guide using the Wechat guidance service

The benefits of micro-tours include more than what’s listed above. For a specific exhibition, micro-navigation establishes databases and various labels, and the cloud service technology helps art organizations and curators to collect and analyze which groups of users are interested in which kinds of works in the exhibition. Which group of users visited which exhibition recently? In those exhibitions, which works did they focus on, and which art derivatives did they buy? For art institutions, the introduction of data analysis into exhibitions designed by Wechat will provide valuable curatorial intelligence.

We are directing our attention to upgrading the current functions of Wechat, and redeveloping and reusing this work by collaborating with museum professionals.

We also need to think about what else Wechat can bring to art museums. What role will it play in promoting exhibitions, expanding audiences, and enhancing the experiences of audiences? We are still at the initial stages, and there is room for development in the future.

In short, the physical space of an art museum is limited, but the service space is unlimited. Wechat provides new possibilities for service and broadens the space for imagination.

Cite as:
h. Wu, The linkage between virtual and reality. In Museums and the Web Asia 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 25, 2015. Consulted .