When the British Museum closes its doors the place comes alive, not with animated Egyptian mummies as in the film ‘The Night at the Museum’ starring Ben Stiller, but with commerce. Tour guides start rolling livestreams on their smart phones out to Chinese cyber tourists halfway around the world.
The British Museum said in August it was doubling down on these virtual tours in partnership with Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group after an early livestream attracted 370,000 views in the first minute.
Many tourists are foregoing international travel again this year as the Delta variant spreads. However, they are still hungry for cultural experiences.
So tourist hotspots from Spain’s Prado Museum to France’s Palace of Versailles and the Louvre are teaming up with technology platforms to keep the crowds pouring in. Over the past year, these seats of learning have upped their game in terms of social media and virtual tours to beam cultural events directly into people’s living rooms.
“People have been able to engage with culture more – it’s easier,” said British Museum director Roderick Buchanan. He told Alizila that an event held in the museum’s Great Court (pictured) typically attracts around 200 to 300 people, whereas virtual hangouts can accrue over a million virtual visitors.
Streaming Comes True
London’s Natural History Museum attracted 100,000 Chinese tourists during the first minute of a virtual tour of its dinosaurs and its Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit, its biggest-ever digital event even as its doors stayed closed to the public during the pandemic.
For publicly funded museums battling historical reputations of elitism reputations, technology is helping democratize their collections by attracting more international and younger audiences. The British Museum ran over 30 online live events and short courses for audiences in over 50 countries from September to March. More than half of the viewers were between the ages of 25 and 44.
From a commercial viewpoint, the tours raise museums’ profiles in China as they sign publishing and brand licensing deals in the world’s second-largest economy or expand partnerships with digital marketplaces such as Tmall. Livestreams can display links directly to the museum’s merchandise, such as posters of the Mona Lisa or replicas of Ming Dynasty vases. The British Museum, for one, is in talks with Alibaba about participating in China’s largest shopping festival of the year, 11.11.
“The challenge we all have is that historically people came to our buildings, and change takes time and is super expensive,” said Brad Irwen, head of global engagement at the Natural History Museum. “But digital enables us to have an immediate and relevant conversation with a global audience, something we struggle to do in a limited physical space,” he added.
Dinosaurs go Digital
Museums’ curators are becoming internet influencers, talking passionately on video livestreams about their research to audiences and responding to questions live on chat functions.
When a senior curator at the Natural History Museum showcased the first examples of new species, pulling specimens out of jars during a two-hour livestream in January with Alibaba’s online travel-services platform Fliggy, watchers showered him with virtual “likes”.
“When you go behind the scenes at a museum – or show curators demonstrating strange and wonderful things, it really lights people up and inspires them,” said the Natural History Museum’s Irwen.
As museums’ takeup of digital channels has gathered steam, they are no longer seen just as an emergency stop-gap during the pandemic but useful in their own right.
The sheer volume of exhibits at the world’s largest museums can overwhelm visitors wandering around their halls, whereas a guided virtual tour can be more targeted and curated, said museum professionals. Museums are also collaborating with peers to connect collections in new combinations digitally.
The Natural History Museum’s recent livestream highlighted its expertise in biodiversity loss ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China (COP15), later this year.
The museum’s scientists are exploring ways to work with Chinese scientists, policymakers and museum professionals on tackling global problems such as biodiversity loss around COP15.
“The museum is combining science, audience reach and public trust to become a voice on the state of the natural world,” said Irwen, who has been tasked with drawing up a new global engagement strategy and a plan for how the museum will work with Chinese audiences.
Museums still face the challenge of turning new digital audiences into footfall through their halls. One way is to offer behind-the-scenes peeks on livestreams into how exhibitions are coming together, whetting audiences’ appetites to visit the bricks-and-mortar museum for the actual event.
London’s V&A attracted 30,000 viewers to a virtual tour of its sculptures and fashion exhibits in June with Fliggy. It included a sneak preview of its exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, charting the evolution of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from manuscript to global meme.
The V&A South Kensington building was only able to open for 15 weeks in the year to March 2021, leading to a 97% drop in visitors year-on-year. The number of viewers of the V&A’s digital tour was roughly equivalent to a quarter of its foot traffic in the year to March 2021.
China’s 1.4 billion population is an increasingly important audience for museums because of its size, spending power and relatively deep mobile internet penetration.
Hangzhou, China-headquartered Fliggy has virtually transported millions of Chinese consumers to 13 European destinations since the start of last year. The Natural History Museum said that the number of visitors to its galleries from China has swelled over the past few years.
“While the world continues to navigate travel, it has never been more vital for museums and tourism providers to consider the ways technology can virtually open their doors to Chinese audiences,” said David Lloyd, Alibaba’s general manager for the UK, Netherlands and Nordics.
Chinese tourists’ spending on culture, heritage and museums has climbed from RMB58 billion (US$9 billion) in 2015 to RMB61.9 billion last year and will hit RMB155.8 billion by 2025, according to market research provider Euromonitor International.
Chinese tourists expect to spend an average of RMB10,116 (US$1,566) per person on their next outbound trip, according to brokerage CLSA, which interviewed 1,600 middle-class Chinese consumers on their views about outbound travel.
The survey also showed 85% of respondents find experiences, such as a visit to a museum, much more important than buying things, like luxury goods, while on holiday.
To be sure, virtual tours won’t entirely eclipse getting on a plane. Overseas travel will remain more of a conversation piece, many tourists still want a selfie in front of the Louvre to share with their online communities.
Still, even when travel restrictions disappear, roughly 90% of mainland Chinese don’t have passports. Low-income families may also crave the educational experience that say the British Museum can offer but lack the means to go overseas.
“The addressable market for virtual tourism you can comfortably say is massively larger than for those that have passports and enough money to travel,” said Oliver Matthew, head of Asia consumer research at brokerage CLSA.
The pandemic has also heightened safety concerns. Safety was the top consideration among Chinese tourists when choosing a destination at nearly 80%, up from 41% in 2013, CLSA’s survey showed.
Watching a Key Opinion Leader, more commonly known as a KOL or an influencer, livestreaming from a riskier destination from the safety of a couch may become more popular, said travel analysts.
More globally, when whole countries were in lockdown, people could spend more time on leisure rather than commuting. They have taken the time to engage with culture more - and digital channels have made that experience easy.
“History has become really popular and I think a lot of that has to do with collections becoming much more accessible online,” said the British Museum’s Buchanan.
Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest Alibaba updates in your inbox every week