Focus | Running virtual events - Museums Association

Focus | Running virtual events

Venues are pivoting from being event organisers to broadcasters
Covid-19 Digital
Caroline Parry
The Sphinx, the Great Pyramid and the two lesser pyramids in Ghizeh, Egypt. one of the photographs on display at the Sights of Wonder exhibition, now online, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Last year will be remembered as a time when the world changed forever because of Covid, but the fallouts from the global pandemic are likely to be felt well into 2021 and beyond.

Coronavirus has affected every aspect of museums’ and galleries’ work, including events. Institutions host hundreds of free and paid-for events every year, which are an income generator and a crucial tool for engaging myriad audiences.

From family and school sessions and events for local community groups to talks, workshops and high-profile festivals, the diversity of events on offer is a strength of the sector. During the UK’s first lockdown last spring, many venues started to experiment with how to hold events online. In many cases, the pandemic has accelerated organisations’ plans to build up their digital skills.

“We had to transform overnight from being event organisers to broadcasters,” says Jen Grindley, the head of marketing, communications and digital at Charleston, the Sussex venue dedicated to the Bloomsbury Group.

Charleston was among the first cultural organisations to experiment with online festivals. After launching an emergency appeal for donations, the venue decided to create a pared-down version of its annual festival (scheduled for May 2020) to be pre-recorded and streamed on YouTube.

Working with Charleston’s artistic director, Susannah Stevenson, Grindley created a programme of 10 talks, which included the festival’s original planned speakers – the artist Ai Weiwei and the playwright Tom Stoppard. It was pulled together in just three weeks.


Recorded as conversations over Zoom and Skype, it aimed to capture the essence of the festival. Grindley and Stevenson sat in on the calls to record speaker views and reinforce the conversational feel.

The content included an introduction by Stevenson shot at Charleston, and a final call to action to donate to the emergency appeal was added to each one. The talks went live on YouTube at a set time so people could watch them together.

The festival has attracted more than 17,500 views, with 4,300 watching the Stoppard talk alone. Viewers tuned in from the US, Australia and Sweden. This compares with around 11,000 people at the physical event and a capacity of 420 for each talk.

The artist Kara Walker was part of the online Tate Lates programme
Wandering between virtual spaces

Tate Modern and Tate Britain used a similar strategy to shift their regular Lates programmes online, using pre-recorded video streamed on YouTube at a set time to create the sense of community and excitement of the live event.


The online events comprise different strands of content, such as poetry, music and talks, which occur at the same time so visitors can “wander” between virtual spaces and curate their own experience. The streams are available for a week after the event.

Chris Condron, the head of marketing for Tate, recommends working with pre-recorded content to reduce the stress of live broadcasting, avoid technical hitches and help teams work within clear timeframes, deadlines and budgets.

Live talking

Oxford University Museum of Natural History opted to dive straight into live digital events to continue its series of talks on First Animals, based on the exhibition of the same name that opened last July.

Using WebinarJam, a cloud-based system that can be streamed on YouTube or Facebook, or as private rooms, the museum has held a series of short live talks, many hosted by the museum’s research fellow Jack Matthews.

Matthews introduces each talk, which lasts between 45 minutes and an hour, deals with questions, promotes the exhibition and signposts future events. He also creates polls and there is time for questions at the end. A recording of the event is uploaded to YouTube after it has finished.


The talks have reached 800 viewers, compared with around 40 to 70 at typical live events, and people have tuned in from more than 25 countries, including places such as Costa Rica, India and Brazil.

“The idea of hosting a talk in a little room just outside Oxford now seems a little antiquated,” says Scott Billings, the digital communications officer at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The challenge will be retaining the new international reach it has acquired. “It has opened our minds to what can be delivered,” says Billings. “We are now looking at how virtual elements can sit alongside real-life events.”

Hybrid wonders

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham is also contemplating hybrid events after organising a Zoom press view for Sights of Wonder,
a physical exhibition that has been transformed into an interactive digital experience.

The press view, developed by Tracy Jones, the founder and managing director of Brera PR, which works with the institute, saw 30 journalists attending at the event’s peak, considerably higher than would have been possible at a physical event.

“I usually have about six to eight, with others going on their own at other times,” says Jones. “Doing the Zoom event allowed a lot more press to explore the show as they did not have to spend three hours each way travelling.”

The exhibition received 8,510 virtual visitors between 12 June and 9 July, which is about 293 per day. This compares with the 157 visitors a day who attended last year’s summer exhibition.

“Evaluating success and the impact of digital events is more challenging,” says Nicola Kalinsky, the director of the Barber Institute, which is part of the University of Birmingham. “It’s another steep learning curve.”

Connecting with the kids

A key focus for many museums during lockdown was engaging with families and home learners.

The People’s History Museum in Manchester has shifted much of its varied programme online, including a PechaKucha storytelling night and its Fabric of Protest sessions. But its first experiment was with its popular family workshop, My First Protest Song.

Streamed through Facebook Live, the session had around 30 people in attendance – 15 children with their parents.

The museum’s programme manager, Helen Thackray, says that it was a success from the beginning, but she has responded to feedback along the way, such as adding lyrics to the livestream.

Ahead of launching the session, the museum reviewed its digital safeguarding policy. “We went over all of the ‘what ifs’ of doing an online event against being in the building,” Thackray says.

Sarah Lockwood, the head of learning and interpretation at Royal Museums Greenwich in London, says it runs toddler sessions on Zoom, which requires a meeting ID and password, and must be pre-booked. Rooms can also be locked to avoid “Zoom bombing”. Attendees must have their cameras switched on and a parent must be present with the child. Visitors can also only message the session’s host.

The Bluebird Belles singing trio performed at the Virtual VE Day 75 Festival at RAF Museum Cosford last year
Making a day of it

To mark VE Day in May last year, the RAF Museum decided to collaborate with the National Army Museum and the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Ella Hewitt, public events manager at the RAF Museum, says the biggest challenges were understanding how to host the event, finding a common narrative for the three venues, “deconflicting” content ideas to avoid overlap and understanding how audiences could engage digitally.

Focusing on social media channels, including YouTube, where the museums already had high engagement, and using a shared website and visual identity, the partnership garnered 20,000 views on YouTube and 60,000 unique page views.

“It’s brought about new partnerships and friendships,” says Hewitt. “More importantly, there is a legacy for working together on future events.”

Many museums and have now reopened, but the potential of physical events remains limited due to social distancing and other Covid guidelines. If there are no lockdown restrictions on pubs and restaurants, people aren’t necessarily going to be in on weekends, so the challenge for museums is how to nurture the digital knowledge and capacity built during the pandemic – and attract audiences with exciting and meaningful experiences.

Top tips for holding virtual events

Which platform should you use and should you charge? Caroline Parry explores the range of options for venues

How to get started

Planning an online event follows the same template as a physical one, although it will require more collaboration between teams. Go through your live programme and look for elements that you can use to create a virtual event. It’s far easier to build on a foundation you already have.

Or start with the audience, says Kate Rolfe, the director of the Revels Office, an audience and commercial development consultancy for the cultural sector. Ask yourself:

  • When is your audience available?
  • What is going to grab their attention?
  • Which platform should
    you use?
  • Do you need to use multiple platforms for accessibility?

Steph Clarke, a freelance digital arts producer, advises asking the following questions:

  • What format is your event going take?
  • Who is the audience
    and what platforms do they already use?
  • What technical expertise and equipment do you have?
  • Can you use a laptop with a built-in camera or do you need a professional camera?

Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube and Instagram Live are perhaps the most familiar platforms. They are free to use at entry level, offer simple editing tools and only require an internet connection. With Zoom, upgrading to the Pro package allows you to create events for up to 100 people for up to 24 hours. Paid-for services, such as WebinarJam, Crowdcast and Hopin to name just a few, are suited to larger-capacity events where multiple people in multiple locations are joining.

These services provide different levels of functionality, such as the ability for live Q&As, and data tools, such as built-in GDPR. They also offer customer service packages.

Clarke says: “Don’t do anything overly complicated if you don’t have the experience or technical support.”

To charge or not to charge?

Digital events have largely been free across the museum sector and beyond during the pandemic, but this is expected to evolve. Elizabeth Bryan, the learning and engagement officer at Hogarth’s House, London, says the decision rests on the resources used for development and delivery.

“Is this something that you used to offer for free that you have repackaged online for a cost or has been developed with dedicated resources?” she says. “Virtual visitors still want value for money.”

If you do want to charge, Rolfe recommends a lower price point than the live version, or using a “pay what you want” model. With the latter, offer clear messaging on what price would be appropriate and why the financial support is needed.

Should you ticket the event?

Ticketing keeps numbers manageable and aids interaction, says Mark Pajak, the head of digital at Bristol Museums. “We anticipate a drop-off of around 50% for free ticketed events onsite. This is also true for online ones.”

Tickets create a feeling of exclusivity, says Bryan, while Ella Hewitt, the public events manager at the RAF Museum, says tickets offer the chance to remind visitors of ways to support the museum.

How should events be promoted?

Events should be marketed through museums’ normal marketing channels, with social media proving particularly effective. As with physical events, newsletters remain a key communication channel.

What not to replicate

“Experiential in-gallery events with their mix of music, discussion and performance are impossible to recreate online,” says Chris Condron, the head of marketing for Uniqlo Tate Lates.

But workshops, talks and music streams do translate well. Remember that attention spans are shorter for digital events. “We have tried to
keep elements to less than 10 minutes,” says Rebecca Sinker, the convenor of digital learning at Tate.

Sharing knowledge

Reach out to museums and galleries that have created events you have enjoyed or found inspiring. Most will be willing to share their experience. And finally, don’t be afraid to experiment– audiences are forgiving.

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