COVID-19 and 'contactless future' of the art world

Interview/Brendan Ciecko, CEO and founder of American start-up Cuseum

Brendan-Ciecko Brendan Ciecko, CEO and founder of American start-up Cuseum | Sourced photo

As India emerges out of lockdown and people gingerly begin venturing outside, the coming months will be all about slow, small resumptions. Culture aficionados, art connoisseurs and keen visitors will be looking forward to museum and gallery visits even if they have learnt to appreciate Facebook and Instagram content, podcasts and open access platforms during their enforced isolation.

What would a museum visit post-quarantine entail to prevent overcrowding and transmission?

Perhaps an all-purpose mobile app with information on special exhibitions, reserve ahead and timed ticketing? It should have directions to hand sanitizing stations, in-built audio guides and tours of varying lengths for which visitors would need their own earphones. It might also include special commentary from artists and virtual wall-label text, apart from timely information on gallery strength and capacity, membership and giftshop plans. Touch-screen interactives might be disabled for now and virtual queues with digital check-ins and wait-in line could become additional features on websites. Some museums might consider digital membership cards to reduce exchange of physical materials with staff members. And for those who can't travel or are advised not to, immersive digital experience with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology is the way to go.

Entrepreneur, designer and typographer Brendan Ciecko has been brainstorming on a "contactless future" in the art world. As CEO and founder of American start-up Cuseum, he has been advising museums and cultural non-profits around the world on ways to leverage tech tools to negotiate a new, corona-distilled world. His company has also conducted research on neurological perceptions of original artworks through AR and VR. Recently, Ciecko was part of a webinar organised by India's ministry of culture on 'Revitalizing Museums and Cultural Spaces' where he offered suggestions which could have a bearing on policies for safe visitor engagement in Indian museums.

Ciecko speaks to THE WEEK on how technology can reinvent consumption of art and heritage in museums.

What are some of the immediate contactless measures that should be implemented in museum spaces as long as institutions fear transmission?

As museums reopen, it will be critical that they ensure the safety and well-being of their visitors and staff. This will require a complete redesign of the visitor journey, to reduce physical touch-points, close contact, and other potential risks. Museums across the globe have implemented timed-ticketing, contactless payments, and virtual queuing to reduce crowds and physical contact, as well as introduced mobile tools to encourage social distancing and eliminate printed maps and brochures.

Can you tell us more about the long-term viability of digital membership in museums as a source of revenue? Which museums have implemented this effectively?

Right now, museums are eagerly seeking new ways to deliver value to their audience and generate new revenue while their doors are closed. In addition to that, even after museums have reopened, there will be a period of time where capacity is limited and a significant portion of the population will feel anxious about interacting in large, public spaces. This has prompted an interest in digital membership offerings and new virtual benefits. Virtual access and exclusive digital content are now being considered as a more permanent fixture of membership. In addition, some institutions are piloting new, lower-cost virtual membership levels altogether.

Considering how 90 per cent of the museums in the world are shut and will continue to face a long closure, are there digital tools developed by Cuseum for security and preservation of collections?

Throughout the closures and into the phased re-opening of museums, we have remained committed to helping the cultural sector in as many ways as possible. We have developed new resources, tools, as well as hosted conversations that over 50,000 cultural professionals have engaged with.

In response to the closures and demand for immersive digital museum experiences, Cuseum released a new augmented reality (AR) tool that virtually transports famous artworks from museums into people’s homes. Additionally, we have developed new tools to help support social distancing, safety, and distance learning, when visitors return to museums in the upcoming weeks and months.

What would you say to the many naysayers who diminish apps, gadgets and augmented reality as jarring and unreal when it comes to experiencing cultural heritage?

The pandemic has changed the world’s perspective on the power and influence of digital channels for experiencing art and culture. This period has forced us all to let go of assumptions and long-held beliefs tied to traditional approaches and mindsets. As digital engagement presented itself as the only option, a new generation of cultural consumers was born; one that sees culture in a non-binary existence—it is not only physical, it is not only digital, at the end of the day, it is all culture.

Additionally, new research has underscored the value and legitimacy of digital channels, such as augmented reality and virtual reality, as a credible means of experiencing art and culture. For those who believe in the great power of art, it is equally important to consider the role technology plays in removing barriers and making it accessible to people all around the world.

In the post-corona world, what kind of balance one can hope to see between technology and the physical experience of art in museums? Will it be like online dating where virtual introductions spur meeting in real life? And how much technology can be allowed to intrude in our consumption of art when we physically attend a museum?

We must acknowledge that technology has radically changed the way we all communicate, learn, and experience the world around us. Furthermore, there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to view art. The viewer, the visitor, the consumer will always decide what they prefer, and it is the responsibility of the museum to provide as many avenues and resources as possible to aid in the public’s experience. In the post-COVID-19 era, technology will play an even bigger role than it has in the past in how people experience museums, art, and cultural sites.

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