The health emergency of the last period has put various sectors of the economy and society to the test. Among these, the cultural sector and, in particular, the public and private museum sector, has been no less affected than others. In fact, despite the fact that Law no. 182 of 12 November 2015 had provided for the protection, enjoyment and enhancement of cultural heritage among the essential levels of services, recent history has shown that this has not been respected and that a (perhaps) necessary closure of museums has not been followed by the institutions responsible for implementing a single, integrated system capable of responding uniformly to the different communication needs of the various institutions, thus generating huge discrepancies between the most and the least accustomed to digital communication, as well as between the most and the least ready to generate one in a short time.

Another problem that put the cultural sector in difficulty was that of the public which, even before the lockdown, crowded cultural spaces unevenly, also due to a different quality of the collections on display or at least the presence of more or less pop works. The public of the museums, the latter increasingly devoted to a necessary tourist business condition and less to the educational and study model, is itself uneven and above all consists of a large number of people who want to visit the museum in the presence and a few willing to follow insights, virtual visits or podcasts. Finally, it has been noticed that many museum structures are substantially unprepared for quality digital communication: some have given up on it before starting, others – often very famous – have not been able to present products of the right quality for a differentiated public, be it a merely touristic one or one made up of experts. In other cases, however, some surprises have been revealed with institutions that have confirmed a line of modernisation of communication already started several years ago.

Data and cases of digital communication of some Italian and European museums

Since many museums are still closed to the public and others have only recently reopened their doors, the evaluation of the effects of digital communication by museum institutions is still ongoing. Nevertheless, a number of important studies are already available and have tried to take a look and quantify the often traumatic impact between museums and digital communication. The data processed by the Cultural Observatory of Piedmont, in collaboration with Abbonamento Musei Piemonte, Lombardia e Valle d’Aosta and the Politecnico di Torino and presented on ArtLab, seem to be significant in this regard. The survey was carried out from 8 to 31 May 2020 on a sample of 3600 people, 91% of whom were subscribers to the museums of Piedmont, Lombardy and Valle d’Aosta, therefore of the area certainly most affected by the recent health emergency. The study conducted was enlightening, despite the fact that the public of subscribers was already more interested in the museum world than a more general public of users. The only really positive data was the one on the penetration of digital information, since 6 out of 10 people knew the different digital proposals of the various museums, even though the number dropped to 4 out of 10 when they were visited. Extraordinarily, the most reactive audience was that of the largest, while among the under-25s, knowledge of the possibilities of digital use of museums was much lower. In general, the public that made use of digital content from museums in the north-west considered themselves considerably satisfied with the initiatives and would be willing to continue to enjoy digital content, even for a fee.

While the public seems to respond quite well, although a social communication gap is evident from the data, at the same time the internal situation within individual museum institutions appears disastrous when one considers the infinite possibilities for careful digital communication that our age offers. The graph above shows that as many as 33% of the cultural institutions examined have not equipped themselves with any form of digital fruition of their collections, while in the other cases most of them have relaunched material previously created with little innovation of the cultural product offered.

In Italy, however, in this difficult period, some virtuous cases of high quality digital communication have also been seen in Italy, and above all, they have been devoted to an often not only passive participation of the public. These include the “walk with the director” of the Egyptian Museum of Turin, which we have already talked about in a previous article, the beautiful social management, especially Instagram of the Carrara Academy of Bergamo or the “Digital Cosmos” initiative adopted by the Castello di Rivoli, which, as Maria Elena Colombo points out in a recent contribution on Artribune, pointed out that the museum is regularly open, considering the digital section as a real home of its collections.

The reaction in Europe has been different. Museums, especially the larger ones, but also diversified cultural communities had already adopted good digital and social communication techniques, and this was further confirmed by the lockdown test. One case in point: the “Stay at home museum” initiative promoted by the museums of Flanders was particularly exemplary. Here, directors and curators made exceptional guides to their museum collections and their videos (concerning various cultural institutions) were brought together in a single digital container translated into several languages, easily accessible and intuitive to navigate.

Temporary or contemporary necessity?

As we have seen, if in Europe the need for careful and professional digital communication was already considered a priority before the recent emergency and if the lockdown was only further proof of consolidated reactivity to contemporary methods of communication, in Italy the situation is quite different and it seems that it is still difficult, in most cases, to believe that the experience of digital communication is fundamental for the economic and cultural livelihood of a museum institution. If we wanted to find a positive aspect in this unpleasant historical period from the point of view of Italian museums, it would undoubtedly be to have given a jolt to the cultural communication of the Bel Paese. In this regard, the studies mentioned above, but also those carried out by MIBACT, show at least a growing attention to a phenomenon – that of digital and social communication – considered for too long improvement but not essential, when, instead, the fate of the cultural institution itself may depend on it. Therefore, we should welcome this new awareness in the hope that we will soon find a widespread network of digital information for Italian museums as well, which are called upon to recognise quality digital communication (and by this I mean a moderate model between tourism promotion and scientific interest) as a contemporary necessity, a way not only to be on a par with others but also to generate healthy competitiveness of cultural information.

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