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Great Leap Forward 2.0—”Internet +” and the Rapid Integration of Digital Technology in Chinese Museums

China is currently undergoing what de Kloet et al. describe as a “platformisation of society,” whereby a growing percentage of social and economic interactions now occur through platforms such as WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, Zhifubao, Didi, Eleme, Youku, and Tudou. “This development,” he writes, “is strongly aligned with the infrastructural ambitions of the Chinese authorities, clearly aiming to leapfrog into an advanced technological future.” [i]

These ambitions were outlined by Li Keqiang at the National People’s Congress in 2015, where he introduced the concept of “Internet Plus” 互联网络+ (also sometimes written as “Internet+”)—“an ambitious agenda that leverages the power of information technology for economic growth and development,”[ii] according to de Kloet. In the realm of Museums and culture, “Internet Plus” pushes for the integration of technologies such internet, mobile tech, big data, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) into the brick and mortar operations of museums.

When “Internet Plus” was first announced, references to the policy began to show up in all kinds of literature about museums, authored by museum directors and outside commentators. Often it seemed to be mentioned in passing, with little or no background information, which made it seem little more than a fashionable buzzword, yet in the five years which have passed, Chinese museums went from having barely-functioning websites to presenting highly-sophisticated AR and VR content, developing a roaring business in e-commerce and creating numerous apps to help the non-visiting public to enjoy their collections online.

These rapid improvements have nudged many museums closer to the international standard—that is at least for the top-ten well-funded state museums which include the Palace Museum, National Museum of China, Beijing Capital Museum, Hunan Museum, Shanghai Museum, and the Guangdong Museum. Unfortunately, this zeal for technology is not always evenly distributed as tech tends to be less of a priority for private museums, contemporary art museums, and smaller poorly-funded institutions. In these situations, the use of technology may be limited to having an active WeChat account, one which allows the visitors to purchase tickets online, or the use of QR codes in exhibition spaces allowing viewers to scan QR codes to pull up more information. Yet despite the impressive adoption of digital and internet-based technology, many in the tech industry complain about the quality of digital content, not only bugs but weak storylines, poor graphics or poorly-maintained technology. Still, Chinese museums are making legitimate leaps forward which provide not only examples to learn from but also opportunities to provide services where gaps may exist.