The future of the museum website will be the paywall and Artificial Intelligence

Museums want to grow, but they don't have more space or capacity. In the reality that COVID-19 has created, there are no overcrowded temporary exhibition halls or bursting ticket offices. The new experience has multiplied in the digital dimension, which during confinement and until the normalization of capacity has replaced the visit but has not left economic benefits in museums. For months we heard the joy of those responsible for public museums for the attention they had generated and their regrets because they did not find a way to generate income. The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum may be the first to break this barrier: it has launched the development of a platform for charging for these new museum experiences, with a budget of close to 800,000 euros.

"We want to offer museum visitors a digital space that is as close as possible to a face-to-face experience," the public museum clarifies in the tender document, which will update the website. He wants to build a visit that has freedom of movement through the virtual rooms and is completed with "digital resources of interest" for all audiences. The reform of the website is aimed at the general public, the educational public, experts and, also, companies "of all kinds, which offer their guests a cultural experience". They will make "special and exclusive activities such as courses or special visits" available.

The Thyssen Museum ensures that the visit to its website, which was built in 2014, "is outdated both from the point of view of its content and the technology used." The new platform will offer virtual experiences about its permanent collection and the main temporary exhibitions. With gigapixel quality, 360 space exploration, video and audio integration, immersive visits, creation of 3D virtual spaces... and related products. The "contents will include products from the museum's online store."

up the wall

The company that has won the award has been The Mad Pixel Factory and will have a year to execute the new website, in which the commercialization of the content of the public collections is an important piece of information. All the experiences “may be free or paid for”, the museum clarifies. “Except for the free visit, the rest will require the purchase of a ticket on the ticket sales platform where different rates will be applied (general, reduced or free). A visit to the platform will be considered only when more than 2 minutes of it have been seen”, he points out.

The pandemic opened the door to the sale of museum content. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) highlighted the urgent need for funding to guarantee the daily operation of museums and good working conditions for their employees. And then, in the midst of a crisis back to normality, the leak of the letter from the British Minister of Culture, Oliver Dowden, appeared, in which he demanded that the directors of the institutions "adopt as commercial an approach as possible", to "maximize alternative sources of income.

Dowden was in favor of "monetizing digital offerings." Paywalls seemed like an immediate solution to the lack of visits. In 2020, the year of confinement, Spanish museums lost 70% of their visits. That is why ICOM advanced that museums would have to adapt and diversify their income. The business imagination in those days spoke of paywalls for exhibitions, exclusive content, applications, subscriptions, courses and workshops... This put the accessibility of museum content at risk.

The public museum will respect a virtual and autonomous and free visit as before. It will be basic and the narration -with eight different languages- will lead the visitor through the rooms automatically. The novelty is that along with this traditional visit, the public museum will include a "premium" visit. It will contemplate the functions of the basic visit but also "delves into the works with access to exclusive content increasing the possibilities of interaction". This exclusive experience will guide the visitor's gaze to details of the work with a gigapixel image.

knowledge for sale

This newspaper has asked the museum about the cost of this "premium" visit but has not received an answer. The tours will be prepared so that the virtual visitor can do them without the need for a guide, "independently, at any time of the day and from any country in the selected language," they indicate from the museum. You will also have a narrative of the details of each work based on the possibilities of these giant images. They will facilitate access to other additional images, such as X-rays of the works.

When visiting the new Thyssen website, the possibility of buying a ticket or a product will appear. It will no longer be a space for communication and dissemination of knowledge of the works of art that it guards, from now on content and marketing will be linked. There will be a donation channel, with which the user will be able to participate again in the conservation of the collection, which depends on the Ministry of Culture and the budgets that it assigns annually. This year the Thyssen Bornemisza Collection Foundation - in charge of managing the museum - will see its budget increased by 11 million euros. In total, he will receive 18.6 million euros in 2022 (not counting the 6.5 million per year that will be transferred to Carmen Cervera and Borja Thyssen for the rental of his collection).

The great investment in a new web experience will take place in the Prado Museum: 4.5 million euros, from European Next Generation funds, to "offer users and visitors a unique experience, increasingly rich and powerful", they explain from the museum. The current version is from 2015 and in a year and a half, with a total of 37 people working, the new design will be ready by early 2024. "The museum's commitment to cutting-edge technology, that we will work with Artificial Intelligence engines and reading increased ”, Javier Pantoja Ferrari, Head of the Prado’s Digital Development Area, explains to this newspaper.

a delicate step

Pantoja is the man who has revolutionized the communication of online museums and recognizes that confinement was a "very important turning point". The digital version of the Prado had already marked a high peak during the Bicentennial (2019), but in 2020 they touched eleven million visits. Then the leadership of the museum began to consider how to benefit from this avalanche of attention in the face of the paralysis of its own income. "The museum was closed and the website was still open," explains Pantoja. That was the moment in which the strategy and the area that he directs were consolidated in the institution and this million-dollar contract "comes to confirm that privileged position."

Will there be a paywall? “No”, replies the person in charge of the Prado website. “We are not going to charge for anything that we have not charged before. This was already said by the director, Miguel Falomir. We are not going to put up an access wall, despite the fact that it is a topic that is discussed among museum professionals. The digital courses will be paid as face-to-face courses were paid before, ”he says. The digital school is not the only novelty, the Prado Builder Module incorporates new business processes: "The different services offered by the platform can be contracted as a cloud service by other museums or institutions". It is a first step in the complicated digital monetization. The expert predicts that it will be a few years until the Prado takes the step and the web finds a way to contribute to the box of own income. “For now, we want to reaffirm, expand and extend the platform”, adds Javier Pantoja.

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