Translating Physical Spaces into Digital Experiences

garden bridge visual

Creating Engaging Digital Experiences

Cultural institutions have a big challenge on their hands in a digital age. How does the experience of a physical space, of visiting a building housing priceless objects, one-of-a-kind artefacts and engaging exhibitions, translate digitally?

We’re seeing a huge increase in digital engagement with cultural institutions, with online visitor numbers far outweighing the number of people who make it through the doors. The British Museum, for example, received a whopping 35.3 million online visitors in 2014, compared with an in itself record-breaking 6.8 million physical visitors, the most of any UK museum or gallery. Add to this an impressive social media haul and that’s a lot of people who are engaging with the institution away from the building. This pattern is common to cultural institutions across the board.

So how exactly is digital changing the way people experience cultural institutions and how can they start using these changes as ways to better engage with audiences?


Cultural institutions are giving people the chance digitally to have a real stake in their experiences – whether that’s by turning to consumers as fundraisers and curators or opening the doors so that people can really become part of a new landmark.

A growing alternative to government support and sponsorship is using crowdfunding platforms to finance projects. In Paris, the Louvre has raised €4 million from 20,000 donors since 2010, while the Musee D’Orsay and Musee Rodin have also recently launched campaigns for public funding. The Smithsonian last year raised $176,000 to fund an exhibition about art and yoga, and have run a number of crowdfunding campaigns on indiegogo – some have been successful, while others have not hit the targets to get off the ground.

London’s Garden Bridge is taking this model to a different plain. With government funding and sponsorship covering some of the costs of the project, their new website encourages members of the public to contribute the final finances needed to make the bridge real. This is a new kind of crowdfunded cultural landmark – a real community investment that can be owned in part by the people who use it.

Cultural institutions as Content Brands

Great cultural collections have always been centred on storytelling and digital experiences should focus on bringing more stories to life, rather than simply marketing the physical experience – whether that’s as simple as a weekly video feature of curators’ stories, an interesting instagram strategy or great podcasts, or a complex and dynamic immersive digital museum environment.

The Lucas Museum, Harvard Art Museums and Rijksmuseum are all doing a great job of surfacing and arranging collections with digital exploration in mind. Collection items are presented as pieces of content themselves, independent of exhibition constraints, to encourage exactly the deep-diving and discovery that should power digital collections.

Minneapolis’s Walker Art Centre takes this further by positioning their website not only as a home for collections online, but as a broader hub for contemporary art. True to the mission of most cultural institutions, by becoming a hub for the subject rather than simple the museum’s collections, this site promotes and encourages contemporary art at large.

Bringing Digital into the Physical Experience

Thousands of pounds of marketing budget have been spent on incorporating emerging tech like NFC into physical exhibition spaces, but digital services have yet to make a great impact on the experience inside the physical space. This type of service should always be designed to enhance the experience, both by unlocking interesting content and functionally by streamlining the visiting experience.

Several galleries have been using iPhone apps as enhanced alternatives to the audio tour guides, complete with additional interviews and comments from curators and personalities. Tate Modern’s London’s guide to last year’s Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition was particularly good, featuring additional images and an audio biography of the artist’s life. The Art Gallery of NSW also introduced a Chinese language guide app after noticing that there were many Chinese visitors to the gallery who would benefit from additional content.

These apps could be really powerful if extended across the entire visit to unlock stories throughout the building. Imagine walking past an unremarkable-seeming sculpture, for instance, and a tap notification appearing on your Apple Watch displaying a fascinating fact about the significance of the object. This could be powered with simple iBeacons technology.

Alternatively, functional features such as the ability to join the back of a virtual queue for a busy exhibition, or pre-ordering food or drink in a restaurant, could make a great impact in a visitor’s experience and are easily implemented.

The New Souvenir

If a visit to the gift shop is the traditional way to cap off a visit to a museum or gallery, then what is the digital equivalent of the keyring or the tote bag that proudly declare ‘look where I’ve been’?

Increasingly, the answer to that question is giving visitors the ability to make the visit part of their visual diary on Instagram and Snapchat. However, attitudes towards letting people take their own photos vary greatly across institutions and exhibitions, with many galleries still prohibiting it.

Paris’ Pompidou Centre benefited from terrific free marketing when a plethora of the world’s most followed models and celebrities heavily instagrammed their visits to the Jeff Koons exhibition during Paris Fashion Week this spring. And photographs will be encouraged at Ai Weiwei’s upcoming Royal Academy retrospective. As Tim Marlow, the Academy’s artistic director, states: “Apologies, but there will be unlimited social media allowed in this show. It is essential… We want to disseminate this show and Weiwei’s work to a global audience”

Beyond this, galleries and museums could give more away as a digital takeaway from an exhibition. A podcast discussion of the exhibition that somebody could listen to on the bus home, or an emailed version of the exhibition notes, would be great touches to spark deeper discovery online away from the physical space.

Engaging Domestic Visitors

With the assurance that the museum or gallery is always there and many big exhibitions often sold out, city dwellers often just don’t have the impetus to visit their nearby cultural institutions. Couple this with the trend for pop-up restaurants and shops – and the success of apps like Dojo that surface them – and cultural institutions are competing for a space on the busy radars of their local community.

As well as attracting tourists, there’s a great opportunity for cultural institutions to use digital platforms to nurture their immediate audience. A local membership service could give people who live in their neighbourhood special access to the cultural institution, sending out notifications like ‘We’ll be cleaning David in one hour. Come down and use the password ‘neighbour’ to see how we keep him looking great.”

Written by:

Sorcha Daly

Sorcha Daly

Senior Content Strategist

Sorcha is senior content strategist at digital design studio Wilson Fletcher, where she comes up with compelling and exciting concepts for a wide range of brands and is part of a talented team that makes those ideas real. She is also editor at The Human Layer, WF’s events and editorial brand, where she writes about how people interact with technology.

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