How can virtual exhibitions reshape museums in China?

Waist up portrait of modern man wearing VR headset during virtual tour in art gallery or museum

The museums in China are facing the most critical challenges ever.

In the past few years, the Chinese government has invested in the museum industry, building up more than 5000 museums which is a 1400 percent increase compared to the last 40 years. But this good story might come to an end due to the coronavirus outbreak and other influential factors. The Chinese economy is slowing down and the Chinese government is expected to cut its funding for the museum industry. The museums were planning to seek extra funding to support their daily operations, while trying to prove their value to the government.

Unfortunately, there is more bad news. The younger generations are showing greater interest in social media and live streaming, rather than their ancient heritage or traditional Chinese clothes that sit in the museums. For the museums, there is nothing more difficult than convincing citizens to visit the museum and support the museum store to boost their revenue. Museums do not only need to increase their ability to interact with new audiences, but also face challenges to produce high quality exhibitions with a limited number of available collections.

For these reasons, the museum industry in China is focusing on virtual exhibitions, or more specifically, exhibitions that are built on 3D modelling and rendering.

In past years, the increased use of multimedia techniques and virtual reality methods created a new form of presentation for museums’ exhibitions: virtual exhibitions. Virtual exhibitions are acknowledged as a unique and complementary way for the museum to promote their brand. It is not only because it can overcome the limits of time, location and space restriction, but also because hypermedia and multimedia are becoming the main portal for museums to promote their brand and increase visits. In the past, many museums in China tried to present virtual exhibitions by listing a collection of work on their websites, but the feedback was not great. However, 3D technology and model-rendering enable a realistic presentation of work via a person’s smartphone.

While it is widely known that the existing 3D technology is often good enough to trick our minds into believing it to be real, virtual exhibitions are not just a digital copy of a traditional exhibition. More importantly, how can virtual exhibitions reshape the brand of a museum, and how can it achieve things that traditional exhibitions cannot achieve?

Virtual exhibitions can provide an interactive experience beyond that of a traditional exhibition. Virtual exhibitions can be composed of text, image, video, voice, 3D model, virtual reality and other multimedia. Attendees can access and view the 3D model of a piece of work via the mobile phone at any time, in any place. Through clicking and rotating, attendees can observe the collection in full 360 degrees, unrestricted by a glass window or balustrade. It also means the attendees can understand the exhibition from a completely new direction through interactive activities such as games. The museums can adjust their content to satisfy the market-need or translate content according to the audience. Even more interactively, museums such as the Whitney Museum in New York provides two-sided information exchanges during their exhibitions, recording visitors’ comments and displaying them as part of the exhibition.

Many museums believe that exhibitions which enable information exchange is an essential criterion for a good exhibition. It means the attendee is no longer an anonymous individual, but somebody that can bring an impact to the exhibition, or even the wider population who visited the museum. In order to promote the museum’s brand and encourage more people to visit the museum, it is necessary to let the audience know their voice matters and their values can affect the meaning of an exhibition. Of course, this cannot happen when the virtual exhibition is fully based on imagination. In order to achieve two-way information exchange, it is necessary for a virtual exhibition to apply 3D technology and rendering to make virtual settings seem real, or at least relatable to a real-life context. When the attendee is able to link the virtual exhibition with their real-life experience, they are able to consider it at a deeper level and are expected to produce better thoughts and feedback.

The idea of applying 3D technology in a virtual exhibition is to reduce its limitation of providing “unreal” content while empowering the attendees to view, interact or even change the content of the work. When the person is a part of the exhibition, they are also touching that exhibition, leaving their own personal marks. Since the concept of enabling visitors to “edit” the traditional exhibition isn’t entirely new, some ask why a virtual exhibition is essential in promoting this concept today. It is true that many traditional museums provide some form of interaction in their exhibitions, but that interaction is always limited. The traditional exhibition can only be represented in the form of photos or videos, but virtual exhibitions enable the attendee to interact with 3D models in virtual and augmented reality.

More importantly, any interaction in a virtual exhibition is inherently different from a traditional exhibition. Virtual exhibitions provide a completely new way to explore and search for new information within a space without physical limits. In such circumstances, attendees are limited to their senses of light and color. There are museums which employ a professional 3D technology team to scan and build up 3D models for collections and render them to look real in a virtual exhibition setting. These factors do not only guide them through the exhibition but also influence how they reshape the exhibition.

Virtual exhibitions also enable greater collaboration than the traditional exhibition. It is not limited only to the attendees and the collection of work, but also offers exchanges between museums, or between curators. In a traditional curation setting at a Chinese museum, curators always define the theme of an exhibition based on the collection of work they currently have at hand. Not only does this caused pressure to these large, famous institutions, but especially the smaller and medium-sized museums that have just established themselves within the past few years.

Virtual exhibitions can change this.

Virtual exhibitions only require the curation team to borrow or lend the digital form of a historical collection. The curator can even combine their own collection with some new work to form an entirely new virtual exhibition, thereby increasing its exposure. It means that museums located far away from the city center, or those with limited collections, are able to more effectively promote their brand online because their virtual exhibition contains one or two famous painting or sets.

In addition, virtual exhibitions encourage museums to build up a virtual community for visitors to interact with, share or even consume exhibition-related products in their social groups. In recent years, the younger Chinese generation is adopting this new culture in tracing pop-idols. The virtual community is the main way to encourage people to spend money to support these public figures virtually. Now is the perfect time for Chinese museums to learn and adopt such a business model. Through virtual exhibitions, museums can promote famous IPs and direct virtual attendees to visit their online store.

In short, China is entering a new era that is heavily reliant on multimedia and mobile devices. It is also true that museums and galleries are facing competition from other social media or entertainment portals. It is known that the business model for Chinese museums is completely different from those of museums in the Western world. A virtual exhibition should not only be categorized as a digital form of traditional exhibitions, but an entirely new sector for museums to explore.

Author: Christiane Zhao

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