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Arts and Culture: How can virtual tours increase audience engagement for art galleries and museums?

Something that keeps cropping up time and time again when I speak to people working in arts and culture is ‘audience engagement’ – more specifically, the ways in which we can use digital to increase audience engagement.

Virtual tours hit it big during the pandemic for obvious reasons, but I wanted to explore them further.

So I caught up with Tom Dale from TD360 to discuss the following question: 

How can virtual tours increase audience engagement for art galleries and museums? 

We had fun recording this and it includes some excellent examples to illustrate our conversation, but I’ve also paraphrased parts of the conversation if you’d prefer to read it instead. 

So, Tom, what is it that you do? 

A lot of the work we do is creating virtual art galleries and showcasing virtual spaces effectively, to not only promote them so people look around and want to come in person but also perhaps to have it as a stand-alone experience so people can view work that maybe they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) in real life. 

What’s the appeal of digital virtual tours? 

We find there are often limitations to physical spaces which we can address with virtual spaces; a good example of this would be the limited capacity of an art gallery, when you can view it digitally the capacity is effectively limitless. It’s also really easy to share by just sending a link! Maybe a client has an international audience and they want to showcase the exhibition to make it accessible to these people too.

A lot of followers are online these days, and providing them with a preview of what the exhibition or gallery looks like online, can give them the confidence to come and visit in person – they can share it with their friends to pre-validate the experience to make sure it’s something they’d all be interested in, before making the effort to go for a shared social experience and then perhaps feeling a little awkward because it wasn’t what they expected…

What is it brands are trying to achieve with virtual tours, what problems are they trying to solve? 

I think it helps brands cater to their communities in a new and engaging way. You can tie a virtual tour into a newsletter, you can give people exclusive access as a private viewing, and you can include artists to come and talk about the work they’ve created to help build the narrative. It’s a more exciting form of content. 

When we worked with Black Lives Matter UK, we made it so you can move around the virtual tour and click on the artwork which comes to life and allows the artist to talk about the work. We’re not trying to replicate a real-life gallery but we’re looking for ways we can enhance it that we can’t do so easily in the physical world. 

Virtual tours have the possibility to change the way we interact with art quite dramatically, right? Is there any resistance to this technology? 

Absolutely, I think looking at it as physical vs virtual is the wrong approach, we want to see this very much as a hybrid approach to increasing audience engagement. 

Has the pandemic pushed organisations to start thinking more seriously about this? 

Yes, I think it has, I think the pandemic has forced people to be online and it’s also trained people to become better digitally – making them feel more comfortable with it. So the idea of a virtual gallery isn’t alien anymore. I think generally people are more comfortable now so the idea of having more digital experiences is not seen as quite outrageous for the arts and culture sector. 

And for audience diversification? 

I think visiting somewhere online is less intimidating and there is no barrier to clicking on a link and looking around, wherever you are in the world. It doesn’t really matter who you are. For that reason your content will become more inclusive and your audience more diverse. 

And it’s useful for resources? 

Yes, it can be used as a virtual archive of your gallery, to showcase the past and present. In a way, the exhibitions will always exist and you can look back at the history of the establishment. 

How are virtual tours flexible for different sectors within arts and culture? 

Yeh, so there is a lot of flexibility. Really any kind of venue that you want to showcase and promote or allow people to experience online, you can do this and showcase the space in its best light to inspire people to want to come and visit in real life. 

It can also help tell a back story? 

Yes, take the example of a castle, you can move and jump around within the tour and actually learn something. The more people learn about a place in person or online, the more they will understand, relate and feel part of it – this helps inspire them further and can make them want to visit in real life!

We’re not trying to replace the physical experience? 

No, we want people to visit places in real life and absorb the culture, we don’t want people to live in some kind of metaverse. It’s about giving businesses an advantage through a hybrid approach allowing them to reach and inspire more people online. 

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Hero photo by Ruben Ramirez on Unsplash.