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Contemporary museum moving on to augmented reality

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Contemporary museum moving on to augmented reality


Sergey Vinogradov

Russian Museum. Photo credit:

The Russian Museum has perhaps the most extensive experience in establishing the online museum space in Russia. We talked on peculiar features of this work with Olga Babina, Deputy Director of the Russian Museum for Registration, Preservation and Restoration of Museum Values and one of the speakers at the 14th Assembly of the Russkiy Mir.

Representatives of leading Russia’s universities and museums, as well as experts and Russian compatriots from Sweden, Argentina and Australia will also take part in the discussion.

This St. Petersburg Museum was one of the first in Russia to offer interesting and edutainment leisure for Internet users who found themselves in self-isolation. During the pandemic, the Russian Museum has increased its online audience by several times. Olga Babina told the Russkiy Mir, "Visiting museum rooms online provided people certain help in overcoming the psychological barriers associated with isolation. The pandemic proved that the digital era has arrived, there is no turning back."

Olga is sure that the museum will continue a number of programs and practices introduced during the pandemic. There will be engaging lectures, tours and films for online audience with widest possible geographical spread - from Chile to Yakutia.

New strategies, old objectives

What projects of the Russian Museum are highlighted in your speech?

– The Russian Museum has been presenting Russian art online for quite a long time. Since 2003, it was about a local network between virtual branches; however now most of this content is available online, and it connects organizations that have full access to the Russian Museum’s digital collection.

A while ago, the Russian Museum: the Virtual Branch project was a game changer in the culture of Russia. How is it developing now?

– This is an ambitious, large-scale project, and it still has not lost its relevance, we have many partners in Russia and abroad. There are 170 centers and the project has more than forty participating organizations outside of Russia.

We have centers that have been opened jointly with the Russkiy Mir Foundation. For instance, centers in Thessaloniki and the Belgian city of Mons operate successfully and actively. In Greece, such joint campaigns as exhibitions of children's art and teleconferences are held on the basis of virtual branches, and children attending those events come to the Russian Museum. Such projects promote Russian culture and help discover common grounds with the culture of Greece. In Mons, the virtual museum is a part of the Russian Language and Culture Center of the local university. It is mostly a language resource that helps to master Russian through films, programs, and texts.

The Russian Museum. Photo credit:

These centers have an important coordination role. They enable us to present an exhibition or project to visitors, as well as to guide them. I believe that we have every opportunity to strengthen joint efforts in these areas.

Have virtual branch programs been appealing during the pandemic?

– Yes, of course, the interest in them has grown significantly. We track the traffic and see that the Virtual Russian Museum portal has been discovered by a huge number of compatriots. Russian-speaking audience from Germany, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine has increased the website traffic eightfold. Obviously, the opportunity to tour around the virtual exhibitions of Ilya Repin, Arkhip Kuindzhi and other artists (we have about fifteen of them) is in great demand. Furthermore, streaming from the Russian Museum sparked a huge interest in the neighbouring countries and distant corners of Russia. Social media helped to expand the coverage significantly.

Have objectives of the Russian Museum: the Virtual Branch project evolved over the years?

– Over the years, the project's strategy has changed twice due to completion of the previous one. As part of the initial strategy, there was the task to establish a local network for Russian art admirers. And today we are implementing the strategy aimed to provide online visitors with the Russian art content and deliver it in a variety of ways to ensure that its largest scope is available. These are virtual exhibitions, courses of Russian art, collections, information about artists, streaming of lectures from the Russian Museum, which take place almost daily.

Of course, the virtual museum has evolved. In 2003, it was all about a set of films about Russian art; but recent years brought significant technical improvements, and now we are able, for example, to offer our visitors augmented reality. Strategies keep changing, but global objectives to promote Russian art remain constant.

Olga Babina

From digital to original

Still, a virtual museum is unable to replace a visit to an actual exhibition. And then what can it do?

– It does not have such an objective. Nevertheless, we see that young people go from digital copies to the genuine ones. And queues to iconic exhibitions in the Russian and other museums can be an evidence for that. People come because they want to see genuine works, but most often they got information about them on the Internet. Our surveys show that visitors learn about new exhibitions mainly through social networks or from friends who, again, informed them online.

Today, young people can be inspired to visit the museum with the information that is placed in a smart way. And you know, new professions with the focus on this area are emerging in the museum community. The museum is evolving, visitors are evolving, but our main function remains unchanged – we preserve genuine works that provide special experience. And digital technologies help in this by telling about artists and collections. A person sees The Ninth Wave, opens the application, reads about Ivan Aivazovsky and sees information about other exhibitions in the Russian Museum to visit.

Photo credit:

A virtual museum is not able to replace a real one, but it can still give an idea of it. For example, we opened a virtual branch in Chile. I don't think that many Chileans will be able to visit St. Petersburg, but the branch and the Internet enable them to take virtual tours around the Russian Museum’s rooms. As to Yakutia, our centers are established in Yakutsk and fifteen uluses (regions). Getting to some uluses requires ordering a private helicopter or driving off-road for many hours. But they also connected to the program and get acquainted with Russian art.

Let us get back to the pandemic. In the spring, museums had to close overnight and it was necessary to quickly transfer activities online. Was it hard to be up to the task back then?

– I guess we managed because of the Virtual Russian Museum project. We have a whole department that deals with it. It is a part of the storage function that I am in charge of. This is due to the fact that storage itself is being transformed: accounting, reconciliation and many other tasks are being digitalized. It is very convenient and agile. When the pandemic began, we were able to use the huge content that had been collected as a media resource; that is about 600 different programs and films. Sometimes we were streaming 24/7. A lot of educational seminars were held. They were organized for virtual branches, but those who wanted to listen could also join. There were some new activities. For example, we had a media marathon dedicated to the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War and events for celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Russian Museum. And all of those efforts were met with great interest.

It is noteworthy that before the pandemic the Virtual Russian Museum department was rather the auxiliary one, just as our virtual branches. Their functions were to assist, suggest, and supplement. And when the museum closed, these departments had to undertake the major load as they suddenly became the leading ones. Their activities enabled us to switch our attention to an online audience rather fast. Experience in streaming and other online activities was very useful. There was no problem for us to organize streaming through social networks or the Russia-K TV channel - the connections had been established. They only transformed and now have programmatic nature. There used to be few lectures a week, but now we have them every day.

What area of activities has become the most sought-after by online visitors of the Russian Museum?

– These are definitely virtually guided tours around the museum. Previously people used this service to look through a certain collection, probably for educational purposes. Now visitors have begun to tour around virtual exhibition rooms. To some extent, it helped people overcome psychological barriers associated with isolation.

What innovations of the pandemic period have been (or will be) included into permanent activities of the Russian Museum?

– We really liked the visual art marathon, and various museums and regions joined this project. It made us present outstanding people and museum collections, and I think we will further use this experience. Or let us look into an organization of an online conference - it became clear how to prepare and conduct them so they are not boring but engaging. It turned out that material prepared for offline presentation may not be suitable for online use. Our work during the pandemic became more open. A lot of new content has been created and it still needs to be comprehended.

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