Last 13 September in the evening, strange and beautiful creatures could be sighted at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin … The most spectacular was the 360° Giraffatitan, the Jurassic superstar of the museum, usually all bones and now brought back to life. It can be beheld with a VR device or simply on YouTube.
The Giraffatitan, as well as another VR story about a wall filled to the ceiling with amazing examples of biodiversity, 2 gigapixel images, 245 images of objects, 14 exhibits, and one MuseumView are the result of a partnership between Google and the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. The context for this is a larger effort, including 62 natural history organisations, including the Natural History Museum in London, the AMNH New York, entitled "Natural History. The beautiful, the dangerous, the endangered. Up close". It is a big scale project that has been in the works since 2015. We asked Gregor Hagedorn, Coordinator at the General Directorate at the museum, to reflect on the project and here are our 3 takeaways for all of you out there willing to dive into a partnership with Google.
1.Google does things you can’t as a museum, so … use it to your best advantage
The Google Arts & Culture platform brings VR, exclusive online exhibition and gigapixels to the table. Most notably, 360° videos as well as high-res images and huge gigapixel images really make a difference in terms of impact.
Some museums are still reluctant to relinquish control of some features to a third party and to disown their physical experience. However when said features are manageable and bring content that set you apart from your competition they can truly make a difference. In Gregor’s words:
In our view, the goal of the Google Arts & Culture platform is not to replace the physical exhibits. In a physical exhibition you have a specific and authentic atmosphere and you can meet with friends or family and share the experience with them. However, traveling is a luxury for some and impossible for others, including most pupils and students.
On the Google Arts & Culture platform, museums can reach a broader, global audience. At the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin we are certain that, should these visitors have a chance to come to visit Berlin, they will also physically want to reconnect with their previously digital-only experience.
Furthermore, we have to face the fact that museums have difficulties to break out of their traditional demographics and reach new audiences. Substantial digital offerings are not the cure-it-all - but they can substantially contribute in reaching new audiences.
- YouTube is where your appeal gets multiplied
As you collaborate with Google, get ready to see your biggest number on YouTube! As for the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin within the first 6 weeks, “37 500 unique users visited the Museum für Naturkunde content on Google Arts & Culture resulting in 78300 page views”. However, “these numbers are access to the VR content on Youtube, totaling 557 200 views for the two Museum für Naturkunde presentations, with the English version of Giraffatitan alone at half a million views”. Thus 88% of the total views generated by the project come are the Arts and Culture platform itself.
Even though the partner-specific analytics provided by Google doesn’t cover contented on YouTube, this is a telling number in many respects and it points towards investing in producing VR, which happens to be both extremely appealing content and location-wise. This is so despite the relatively small number of likely users who can view content in VR for now which should slowly change in the future.
- Google Arts and Culture is a learning curve, but it is worth it
Google Arts and Culture is, as a matter of facts not perfect yet. There are a few glitches that need to be solved: MuseumView needs some color and image adjustments and agile linking to items, collaboration between partners on the platform is not yet easy or agile and layout and responsiveness are not perfect.
Google Arts and Culture remains after all a tool and it is not all that seamless, but “after getting the hang” of the tool, Gregor reckons, “it can be fun”.
As it is, the museum will continue on with VR. Mathias Paul from the Museums PR department states: "Besides the general accessibility, the VR experience with Google Cardboard will be available to closed visitor groups in the museum". We will also continue to use it for visitor engagement, together with content from other exhibition and project partners, like the digitization technology “Zoosphere” displayed in the Leibniz Association’s special exhibition “8 Museen 8 Objekte”. We are planning to include Google Arts & Culture as an accompanying, global accessible promotional tool to our exhibition activities as well as a platform providing insights into the research activities of the Museum für Naturkunde.”