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Will virtual museum visits survive the pandemic?

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In a survey of around 1000 participants, conducted for the Future Museum innovation network, Fraunhofer IAO has been investigating wishes and expectations regarding the use of digital technology in museums and science centers now and in the future. These results were presented at a hybrid meeting of the Future Museum network, held at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. In one key finding, the survey reveals a hesitancy with regard to digital technology on the part of some respondents.

These days, it is rare to find an area of life that hasn’t been impacted by digitalization in one way or another. Over the past 12 months, it has become clear that even the most analog of areas can benefit from taking the plunge into the digital world. Sometimes, however, this is easier said than done. Take the arts, a sector that frequently lives from its character as a live experience and its interaction with the public. How might events make best use of digitalization? And, more specifically, how can a visit to the museum go digital?

In December 2019, the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO teamed up with the research and consultancy group MUSEUM BOOSTER to launch Future Museum, an innovation network designed to link up museums and science centers and to drive the introduction of digital technology in this field. The pandemic has intensified the search for new and virtual forms of participation that satisfy museum visitors’ needs. One key question is how a virtual experience might differ from a real museum visit or, indeed, trigger the latter. In order to attain a better understanding of the behavior and expectations of both actual and potential visitors, Fraunhofer IAO has conducted a survey for the Future Museum innovation network. The results were presented at the fourth Future Museum meeting, which was held at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich on July 14 and 15, 2021.

Can virtual formats help insure against future crises?
The online survey ran until March of this year and canvassed the views of over 1000 respondents from various – in the main, European – countries. It was divided into two topics: future and innovation, and experience and expectation. Although just over two-thirds of respondents have already experienced a virtual museum visit, only 35 percent say they would describe it as satisfactory. Moreover, more than half say that a virtual visit can complement an actual visit but not actually replace it. However, 56 percent of respondents do see a virtual visit as an opportunity to enjoy a completely new experience.

It is noteworthy that only a small number of respondents – five to seven percent – declare a willingness to interact in a virtual or augmented reality setting. On the other hand, as many as 70 percent are open to the idea of hybrid exhibition formats, featuring a mix of analog and digital exhibits. Regarding the future role of museums in society, 95 percent of respondents would like to see new educational approaches in this setting. This includes closer cooperation with the education sector – schools and kindergartens, for example. Here, museums might be used to provide innovative teaching environments and new forms of learning. Students could, for instance, take part in research projects with scientists at natural history museums. Prof. Vanessa Borkmann, project lead for Fraunhofer IAO, had the following to say about the results: “The related challenges are many and varied – that’s the message from industry representatives. They emphasize the importance of reliable data sources and a targeted collection of data so as to ensure a successful implementation of innovative solutions and new formats.”

Second phase to launch in February 2022
The first research phase focuses on identifying trends, challenges and opportunities for improvement, as well as developing future scenarios for museums. This will end in November 2021. The second phase will implement and evaluate, together with project partners, selected findings from previous research. Here, too, workshops and other concrete events will continue to play an important role. Stakeholders and potential partners are actively encouraged to get in contact with Prof. Borkmann.

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