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Online content was the only game in town during lockdown, but which museums did it best?
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Rachel Ellis
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The RA created the perfect content and tone for its website during lockdown
The RA created the perfect content and tone for its website during lockdown

Website | Royal Academy of Arts

For museum and gallery staff who used to spend their days thinking about the needs of physical visitors, what was the new normal when visitors were staying at home during lockdown?

Larger institutions were always going to find this an easier question to address than smaller venues. Their digital channels are already filled with stuff that can be repurposed quickly for their new stay-at-home audiences. If you already have stacks of great web content, then it is much easier to make a meaningful offer for remote visitors. 

The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) website is a stand-out example of how to do this well. It created something completely appropriate for our new world, when so many of us were at home and were trying to find ways of connecting with others or to educate our children, or were just looking for some cultural enrichment after the end of a long day of Zoom meetings.
The RA website during lockdown almost ignored the institution’s bricks and mortar, which was so painfully out of our reach and therefore pretty irrelevant. This was the RA for our new smaller worlds.

The content and tone felt so present in a moment of international weirdness – it not only pointed us towards a virtual tour or an online database that already existed, but was also really thoughtful about what we all might need to address at the time.

The RA site was reorganised to give us sections on what we could make, read, watch and learn. It had all the things that I was looking to do while stuck in isolation.

You can almost feel the brainstorms that took place when coming up with the content: “Let’s encourage kids to make some art and enter it in our Young Artists’ Summer Show”. “But what if they don’t have any paint brushes at home?” “Well, we’ll make a ‘how-to’ guide on making your own brushes from foraged finds like twigs and leaves.” Brilliant!

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The RA tapped into our isolation obsessions too – whether that was streaming loads of television and film (it created a list of the best artist biopics and documentaries to stream this month), or looking at cute dog pics and videos, (it developed an art tour for dog and art lovers), or taking part in endless quizzes (a quiz on Picasso). 

This really was a great example of a cultural institution producing something that put its audience at the front and centre of what the organisation does. And it was achieved with lightness and humour, which we all really needed during lockdown.

Online quiz | The Great British Art Quiz

Working together to help others is what many hope will be the legacy of this pandemic. Each evening during lockdown brought news reports of people collaborating in our communities and this gave us a lift, reminding us that, even in the worst of times, we can pool our resources and our time and makes things a bit better for those around us.

The Great British Art Quiz was published on the Guardian’s website

Art UK’s collaboration with The Guardian newspaper (using works from over 3,000 museum and galleries in art themed quizzes) is a lovely project that gave me a little lift each day. It felt like a sector coming together, pooling its resources, and reminding us of all the expert knowledge and breathtaking collections that our museums and galleries hold.

It was a small and welcome distraction from the shocking and often traumatic headlines. The Great British Art Quiz was published on the Guardian’s website and brought us into contact with the collections from large and small institutions across the UK. It appealed to me as a lover of quizzes and a lover of art.

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During lockdown, my family and its extended branches got really into quizzes and trivia. We met online to quiz with our relatives and have a lighthearted hour when my family of four showed our appalling knowledge of sport, but our slightly better knowledge of art. The Great British Art Quiz was used a few times when we needed to lay our hands on a picture round.

As yet, nobody has published the crunched numbers of museum web stats during the closures, but it’s very likely that no visitors to our museums and galleries meant fewer website visitors, given the high proportion of those people who look for “physical visit” information online. So, getting eyes onto museums and their collections via the medium of much-used online newspapers seemed a very savvy move to me.

Twitter | #CuratorBattle / #gettymuseumchallenge

There have been a few times during lockdown when I’ve deleted the Twitter app from my phone. Sometimes the anger, the rage and the despair can get your down, and I have felt nostalgic for the days of Twitter in its infancy, when it mainly felt like a fun and supportive place to hang out.

Of course, I have sporadically popped back into Twitter to check that the world is still raging (it is) and I have mulled over whether the platform can still be a place of fun and light-heartedness when there is, of course, so much right now that we need to be raging about. And then I spot things that can make me laugh out loud, or feel a smidgeon of joy, and I realise that we all need moments when we get to feel inspired or uplifted, despite the difficulties the world is facing right now.

Laughing Fool with Giraffe Ears, c. 1500, attributed to Jacob Cornelisz van Ootsanen. Recreated via Facebook by Tiffanie Pierini Ho with giraffe onesie, Christmas jumper and post-it

Two hashtags created by museums during the pandemic provided those brief moments of respite from the daily grind of catching up with the state of our world.

During the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles suggested that people (who may be a little bored while being socially isolated) choose a favourite artwork, select three objects lying around their homes and then recreate the artwork using these objects and post to social media. It was a simple idea that quickly went viral. If you missed it and still need a little cheer then do search #GettyMuseumChallenge. These wonderful recreations are brilliantly detailed and often hilarious.

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My second go-to for some Twitter fun in Yorkshire Museums #CuratorBattle. Each week the digital people there suggested a topic for the world’s museums to riff around using their collections. Covering unexpected areas such as #BestCat or #BestBling the responses are often funny, always interesting, and the tone is light and humorous.

Our need to cope via humour, coming together in the face of adversity with a shared giggle feels like the stuff that Twitter was made for (before it became the place where everyone shouted at one another). Thanks to the Getty Museum and Yorkshire Museums. It was just what we needed.

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