#closedbutopen?! Virtual museums for sustainable curating

Dr. Frank Dürr is managing director of acameo, curator and author of the handbook “Making Exhibitions”. He opens the new CUUUB blog with a post about the hashtag #closedbutopen and the opportunities with virtual museums.


Museums in lockdown

All cultural institutions have to cope with heavy workloads, especially in times of crisis. Of course, museums are not excluded from the current malaise either, as the doors are closed and “real” visitor numbers dropped abruptly to zero. Now the time has come for real online offerings. Only large and/or particularly innovative houses dedicated themselves to these topics before the pandemic. Now, with the lockdown that has existed for some time, a new era is unwantedly under the noses of the houses, and most of them have already reacted quickly and early to the changeover. But which of these formats are successful and sustainable? Which formats are target-oriented? Which formats are even profitable in the best case, considering how many offers on the net are free of charge. Are museums allowed to charge admission fees for museum visits of a digital nature? Are cultural institutions allowed to sell tickets for virtual tours, and most importantly, should they? I’d like to touch on a few issues that I myself have faced when creating a museum digitization strategy: The acceptance of digitization was almost non-existent a few years ago. Nowadays, however, no museum director dares to consider digitization irrelevant, at least in the official statement. #closedbutopen is quickly posted on websites and social media channels. But what follows is usually not very strategic and even less innovative. It quickly becomes clear who has grasped the digital challenge as an opportunity. 

The digital museum

When planning and organizing digital offerings, directors and curators could try to answer one central question in order to avoid the worst mistakes: Which digital/virtual solution combines both the planning of museums and exhibitions and the sustainable and profitable at least cost-neutral handling of the presentation of our cultural assets and enables a meaningful form of experiential mediation? After all, simply digitizing one’s own holdings seems to represent a foundation, but not yet the solution to successfully complete the transfer of knowledge. I don’t know about you, but just scrolling through image databases of objects doesn’t seem to me to be the ideal solution for presenting museum holdings in the 21st century. For example, the Städel in Frankfurt am Main with its Digital Collection probably saw it similarly and developed, among other things, a playful approach to database entries. This involved thinking not only about how to collect the data, but also how to present the data to make it more attractive to use digitally. Image sliders of exhibition pieces, i.e., images that are supposed to give an exhibition when strung together, also seem rather dull and bland, even when shown on Google Arts and Culture. Exceptions prove the rule here. For example, the Württemberg State Museum shows a shapely example of how to use this platform with its excellent image quality and short, appealing texts, and provides an easy and attractive introduction to the topic of “Fashion?!”. The Badisches Landesmuseum is also currently demonstrating an approach that should be urgently pursued. The approaches and concepts of museum X show some progressive ideas that give hope for innovative realizations.

Virtual tours and accessibility

Virtual tours are currently enjoying great popularity. This format has various forms. Live guided tours with cameras on mobile tripods provide an insight into the currently present exhibitions through real guides. Virtual 3D tours through existing exhibitions, on the other hand, probably manage best not only to process the knowledge in text form, but also to show the way in which the museum presents these objects and in a context of how the museum arranges, locates and stages knowledge. In doing so, these offers are available 24/. At the same time, these tours in 360° have the advantage that visitors* can easily get to know and discover the house and the rooms. Also, the feeling of walking through an exhibition is much more reminiscent of the actual analog museum visit. We have realized this with CUUUB in the Westfälische Salzwelten, among other places. The project was developed in cooperation with the municipality of Soest and Deutsche Telekom. Telecom’s manager Levent Dogan reports on the advantages of this solution in the video “Experience White Gold”.https://www.linkedin.com/embeds/publishingEmbed.html?articleId=9202561241403818876

Storytelling in the virtual

In contrast to the analog experience, the virtual still offers far-reaching possibilities to connect the existing stories and exciting objects with other sources, to convey them in a more interactive way as well as to present them in a more aesthetically pleasing way, even if of course one cannot completely compensate for the lack of the material. But the possibilities of the virtual museum with the knowledge of exhibition making of curators* can be invaluable and lead to an inspiring experience if heart and seriousness is put into curating the virtual exhibition.

Just imagine if a curator would devote the same commitment to a virtual exhibition as to an analog exhibition. In part, this is currently done out of necessity or because of free time, but the professional use of these tools is also worthwhile in the long term, because they can generate an unimaginable reach. The combination of storytelling strategies, 3D or in some cases virtual or augmented reality are currently new forms that first have to find their conventions and thus their acceptance. These innovative approaches and experiments still serve as a playground for museum directors and curators. Especially in the field of VR, the first approaches are still strongly experimental in nature and therefore have a special appeal for museum staff. However, with these VR approaches, it must be taken into account that the necessary devices of the digital visitors are possibly not available everywhere or that the visitors must be on site (in the museum) in order to use the offer. Therefore, for the mass phenomenon of the digital exhibition, it is certainly advisable to take a closer look at the presentation in 3D space. Combined with the telling of a good story, combined with the entertaining structure of an exhibition and transformed into the virtual space with numerous features that make the online visit even more palatable, it offers an incredibly wide playing field and an aesthetic means for curators to present objects, to tell stories, to highlight personalities and to make contexts tangible.

Analysis of virtual museum visits

New aspects of analysis and evaluation are also becoming increasingly apparent thanks to a digital twin of the museum. A heat map can be used to display anonymized and pseudonymized information in real time about where virtual visitors are going, which areas they are avoiding or only briefly touching. The analysis of the walking routes and the duration of stay can thus not only be used for an evaluation at the end of the exhibition, but already reveal these findings in the pre-visit and in the first live visits. The chances of optimizing the exhibition during its process are increased even more in a virtual museum. And here we are just at the beginning of a new data collection for museum managers.

Dashboard of CUUUB with a real-time heatmap of scanned areas and numerous other features for the analysis of the offer in the museum’s digital twin

Digitize analog revenue streams

Most offerings online are free to users. Only a few live tours of museums via smartphone currently cost a few euros. However, there are numerous ways to use virtual museums in such a way that certain services and offers can also be monetized. With CUUUB, for example, an immersive web store can be fully integrated, which offers numerous extras and “clearly stands out from the gray mass of e-commerce systems,” according to Prof. Dr. Oliver Höß.

Spatial planning and security

One aspect that has gone largely unmentioned so far is the sustainability of online museums. Just think for a moment about your last analog exhibition (even though it may have been a while ago) and how much material was used, how much money was invested to set up the exhibition, or how many resources ended up in the trash can after the exhibition. In the almost 7000 museums in Germany alone, tens of thousands of exhibitions have been implemented in recent years, not always with a sustainability concept. How can this be done more sustainably with the means of digitization? The Deutsches Museum demonstrates this by means of a first prototype on the same technological basis as used in CUUUB. A scanned point cloud and thus a highly accurate digital twin of the Deutsches Museum creates a 3D image that can be used in a variety of ways after it has been captured once. Based on this 3D model, future planning of analog exhibitions can be carried out with millimeter precision. Exhibition planning is realized in a similar way to the “BIM” process, “Building Information Modeling”. The digital images of the objects are curatorially positioned in the 3D model of the museum. The curators virtually run through their own show in advance and use these plans to further consider their concept. Playing out this digital twin of the exhibition as a separate pillar of the exhibition project also comes much closer to the analog exhibition experience with this form. Linking with security systems in the digital twin is also possible. Among other things, the technologies around IoT / sensor technology offer opportunities to monitor the exhibition and read out the existing data and display it in a dedicated dashboard.https://www.linkedin.com/embeds/publishingEmbed.html?articleId=8778118644925837010

A virtual tour of the point cloud of a museum site in CUUUB.


Virtual visitors have real relevance

And finally, a short plea to recognize virtual visitors as serious museum consumers. In many museums, we still hear the statement that relevant numbers can only be measured at the “real” museum box office. Where does this misconception and stoic adherence to this attitude come from? Of course we all love the on-site museum experience, why wouldn’t we?! But the desire for a haptic experience is not even met here in many houses and the representation of objects are getting better and better in the digital space and in the near future will bring visitors much closer to the object than would ever be allowed in the “real” museum. Here are a few keywords that could be followed up at a later date, as each of these topics would deserve its own article:

  • (Global) Reach
  • Virtual (historical)
  •  context
  • Co-text through objects from other houses
  • Exhibition duration
  • Flexibility
  • Availability
  • Range of communication tools
  • Gamification
  • Participation

Let’s return to the central initial question: Which formats are successful, sustainable, purposeful, profitable? I would like to give a short answer here, but at the same time invite you to expand this list, to comment or to take a closer look at CUUUB for our approach. Or even to seek lively exchange in communities such as “WeAreMuseums”.

Considering diverse perspectives on the museum system and the daily as well as specific projects, I see the greatest opportunity for many museums to pursue a strategy that, on the one hand, includes museum culture in digital transformation processes and considers close links between analog and digital or virtual projects. The meaningful interplay between analog museum practices and digital forms of presentation will certainly increase massively in importance after the lockdown.


Dr. Frank Dürr is the managing director of acameo. He received his PhD in General Rhetoric with a thesis on “Behavioral Science Foundations of Rhetoric.” He is a communication expert, curator and author.

Dr. Frank Dürr is founder and managing director of the group for digital communication acameo (Creative Ambassador BW 2020). He is a lecturer at various universities, and is also the editor and author of publications on communication science and museology. In 2014, he published the handbook “Making Exhibitions” (UTB, Stuttgart) and was recently awarded the DigAMus Award for the digital exhibition project “Dental|Things”.