Visitor attractions: Indian museums go digital

Museums are changing as digital art and objects make their way into collections. Hurrairah bin Sohail investigates what this means for technology and attractions moving forward.

Across the globe attractions are drawing interest and investment due to a multitude of factors. In broad strokes, a growing middle class with purchasing power requires avenues for entertainment.

More importantly this growing middle class has demonstrated that it is willing to spend on entertainment. And then there is the fact that there is pent-up demand for entertainment, and this is providing attractions with a golden opportunity for growth. Attractions come in all shapes and sizes, but for the purpose of this discussion let us narrow our focus down to museums.

In India, the museum sector has been steadily growing. Harbir Singh Panesar, director at Pan Intellecom, details: “The growth of museums in India is driven by multiple factors. Overall, if you are familiar with the history of India, you’ll know that for more than 200 years the story of India was written by the British. But the unwritten history and stories were preserved by the people and the regions. There is now a drive on the part of the government to tell these stories and to take ownership of the narrative around India and its history and museums play a role in accomplishing that.”

He continues: “Then there is the economic consideration around museums. We worked on a project called Virasat-e-Khalsa and the end result of that project was that visitors to the area started staying longer. This lead to an economic boost for the area because patrons would spend on hospitality and attractions. The government views investment in museums as a way to uplift areas and regions. And lastly, museums are seen as a way to connect the younger generation to the history and journey of India.”

Zooming out to take a global view, Gavin Olivier, business development MEA at Kraftwerk Living Technologies, believes the nature of museums is changing. He says: “Museums find themselves in a unique position. They are under pressure to perform and to make themselves more relevant and more interesting. They have to try and cater to a younger audience and an audience that is accustomed to looking at their phones, an audience that is used to high quality content delivered in a short, sharp, fast, 30 second Tik Tok-esque medium. But at the same time, museums still have to do their basic job and they have a duty of care to look after the ‘collections’ and to make those collections visible to the public.”

Competing against the wider gamut of attractions and entertainment options available to patrons has seen museums change. A new avenue for museums to start exploring the realm of the digital.

Digital art and objects might be nascent when compared with historical works but their impact and resonance with modern audiences cannot be disregarded. The transformation of museums as they explore the possibilities of the digital world is raising some philosophical and existential questions. Gavin elaborates: “At what point does a museum stop being a museum? Is it when it goes fully digital? Take teamLab for example, their work ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to the museum’s role of bringing original, contemporary art to the people. The same holds true with the work of an artist like Refik Anadol. But just because the collection is now digital, can the space be called a museum or is it purely an attraction? We are seeing the rise of NFTs within the art world and now we can see that just because the ‘object’ exists only in the digital realm does not mean that it doesn’t have significant value that should be preserved and curated.”

Gavin believes that we are looking at the evolution of ‘hybrid’ museums: “If you look at Infinity des Lumières in Paris, it is taking the works of great artists like Van Gogh and turning them into this completely new digital experience. Van Gogh enthusiasts can go there and experience the joy and beauty of his work that has been translated and depicted in the digital realm. But at the same time, someone who knows nothing about Van Gogh can also have an immersive experience. It is a really good example of these new hybrid spaces that could become a new breed of museums.”

A by-product of going digital is an increased reliance on technology. Digital art and objects require technology to bring them into the physical world. But making the jump to incorporating digital art and objects into a museum is not as simple as going to market and buying some projectors or displays.

A lot of consideration is required, and Gavin elaborates: “As technology becomes more accessible, and perhaps a little bit cheaper and easier to maintain, museums are becoming more interested [in digital]. But they have to be careful. Complex multi-projector systems require alignment and care, and this is something that they have to factor before putting them in. Operational budgets are all under pressure and museums have been suffering with reduced numbers. So, the investment in technology must consider the museum setup and the operational team they have in place.”

However, if a museum has the option to incorporate digital works as part of its offering, there are new benefits to be had. The ability of digital work and art to create immersive, ‘instagrammable’ environments can allow museums to create ‘social media buzz’.

According to Gavin, this attention to social media performance is already being incorporated into the work done by the people who create visitor journeys and experiences. He says: “Infinity des Lumières has points marked on the floor, directing the patron to face a certain direction and letting them know that this is the spot for a premium selfie. They are clever enough to understand that one of the best things you can do as a venue, attraction, museum or whatever, is to offer something that patrons can post about because those posts equal feet through the door. And of course, that also makes you infinitely sexier to the younger generation.”

The focus on creating experiences that users want to share on social media however has added a layer of complexity. Displays, whether projectors, flat panels or LEDs, need to not only be tuned for the human eye but they must also look spectacular through the lens of a smartphone camera.

This requirement is already becoming a core part of projects and Kraftwerk Living Technologies knows this from personal experience.

Gavin details: “For the Saudi Arabia [KSA] Pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai, one of the primary requirements was to make sure that the LED screens look good in pictures taken with smartphones. We took steps in the design phase to ensure this, and we tested with the widest variety of smartphones, old and new and across all the major smartphone providers, we could find to make sure that there were no issues with performance factors such as framerates. This was a major marketing exercise for Saudi Arabia. It was about showing Saudi Arabia to the world, and they knew that it was going to be through the lens of camera on a smartphone.”

Returning to the Indian perspective, Harbir believes that museums in the country will be taking an approach that suits their patrons. He says: “Artefacts will always be part of the museum, especially in India where we have such a long and rich history that there is no shortage of art and objects of historical importance. But going digital allows museums to update so to speak. They are able to take these artefacts and the static exhibits and really enhance their impact. Static exhibits no longer excite or engage younger visitors. But if you can have digitised content that they can view, interact with and consume on platforms at a pace that they want, then you can really get them to engage with the content.”

He continues: “And you don’t have to think about digital content in a museum as something that replaces artefacts. For example, a coin from the first Sikh empire is historically relevant and definitely belongs in a museum. But a coin is really small and having it as a static exhibit that engages people and draws them in would be very difficult. If you can map the coin and then project that content in 3D or with an immersive angle it can make that coin into a draw for the museum.”

The presence of digital works in museums and as part of attractions in general is expected to increase.

The benefits of creating an immersive experience that can also be shared on social media has a tangible effect on the bottom line of attractions which means that going down the ‘digital’ route is something that will become a mainstay of attractions.

Looking forward, Gavin muses: “Museums are a wonderful thing, and the need to preserve and care for collections will always be there, but what is exciting is how such institutions will be challenged by the rise of immersive, digital experiences that are driving a lot of visitor numbers. This is an interesting intersection, and we are seeing large amounts of money invested in these tech driven ventures with very positive outcomes. This is definitely a space to watch.”

Harbir concludes: “There is definitely a lot of growth and a lot of advancements made in the museum sector especially in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. But when I compare that with India, we might not be on the same level in terms of investment. But I would say that we are blessed with a far richer story to tell. India is one of the oldest civilisations in the world, we have diversity with unity in the shape of multiple cultures and regions each with their own story to tell.”

Image: Radiokafka/

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