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China Engaged: How Museums and Galleries Increased Engagement During the Covid-19 Shutdown

In a report released by Jing Travel in March, 2020, Richard Whiddington and Peter Huang identified four major trends among the major cultural institutions in China in response to the covid-19 outbreak and subsequent museum and gallery closures: innovation, collaboration, thinking long term, and using expert advice in the planning and execution stages. The six most common approaches for engagement and outreach among these institutions were putting their collections online, hosting virtual exhibitions, having official WeChat accounts, having mini-apps within the WeChat platform, live streaming, and online classes. Often, one initiative involved multiple methods.

Before the outbreak, tech giant Tencent (parent company of WeChat) worked to develop a central portal allowing China’s museums to upload their exhibitions. During the Covid-19 closure period, institutions were encouraged to take advantage of the existing resources to stay connected to their patrons and offer necessary diversionary and educational experiences to potentially new groups of people sheltered at home looking for something different and enriching. These kinds of resources allowed museums like The Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum to upload audio guides to more than 30 exhibits and videos through their official WeChat account. Similarly, Dunhuang Academy China has developed “Digital Dunhuang” on WeChat, Weibo, and their official website. Among some of the features is a virtual tour of the Mogao Grottoes that allows users to zoom into high resolution images of the caves to experience them in a way that would not be possible on site.

The National Museum of China also recognized early on the power of virtual engagement. They detailed to us how “five ‘Cloud Live Streaming’ events were launched on Douyin (China’s TikTok), with more than a million online viewers ‘touring’ the National Museum of China in the live broadcast room, interacting with the museum guides, and placing orders for cultural and creative products. The Museum highlighted their Oracle Bones collection, using the format as an opportunity for education and to show the museum’s brand personality. In addition to drawing fans, the ‘live streaming from cloud’ also served as a powerful marketing tool, which would transform clicks to interest in buying museum souvenirs and advance the development of the museum IP.”

Chinese institutions are also looking at innovations in the gaming industry and using those tools to design interactive experiences for their audiences. The Suzhou Museum has several games online visitors can play via their WeChat app. In one, players can take parts of Chinese traditional inkwash masterpieces and arrange them to recreate the original (or a variation of it). In another, players build traditional Ming dynasty furniture. The Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in Xi’an has a game that pairs 2,000 pixel images of the Terracotta Warriors with facial recognition technology to see which of the warriors a visitor most resembles.