How museums can combat Covid-19

Museums and galleries around the world are beginning to open their doors once again after a grim hiatus of lockdown, but as people begin to return, the question of safety, security and the use of potentially unhygienic technology begins to rear its head.

Paul Marshall, Recursive, explains how these spaces can keep their visitors safe and engaged in the ‘new normal’ working world.

In Europe, several prestigious institutions such as the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands are opening their doors for visitors for the first time in months with social distancing measures now in place. The van Gogh Museum opened its doors on the 1 of June, following guidelines put in place by the Dutch government to ensure that visitors remain 1.5 metres apart. 
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As part of the new measures, tickets are purchased online with an obligatory start time, forbidding the entry of groups and installing stickers throughout the museum to help visitors keep to the suggested distance, implementing screens at information desks, the museum shop, audio guide counter and other areas to protect staff. 

This method has proven effective for a number of museums, but what exhibits that require a more interactive experience? Some museums such as the Science Museum and British Museum in London, UK are now investigating how they can work with government, trade unions and supporters to see how and when they can re-open in a ‘financially sustainable manner, for the long term.’ 

While initially conceived as a creative way of providing visitors with an engaging experience, Recursive’s audio based, ‘hands-free’ system at the Qatar National Library in Doha, Qatar, could point the way for integrators and museums looking to provide a ‘social-distancing friendly’ experience for visitors, delivering real-time audio services for users based on the precise location of a user within the library. 

The library offers a quirky blueprint for museums and galleries looking to reopen their exhibits in a way that is both interactive and safe.
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Paul Marshall, senior technology consultant, Recursive, explained: “They wanted a touchless experience. In addition to being a library, [the space is] is a museum as well; with lots of artefacts, heritage zones, interactive elements and information kiosks. They wanted a tour guide system but without having to press buttons. The only input required was to select the language at the beginning of the talk, whether you want Arabic or English. We ended up using Wi Fi to transmit the audio and Bluetooth to sense where the visitors were in the building so that the triggering of the audio track was automatic.”
"It's about creating that experience for people because that's ultimately why people go to a museum or exhibition. The more interesting you can make that for them, the more likely they are to come away with some sort of memory.” - Paul Marshall, Recursive

Visitors to the library receive an iPod Touch with a pre-installed app which allows them to navigate the space with access to encyclopaedic levels of information without touching a screen or other surface. 

Marshall believes that creative, out of the box approaches such as these can allow museums to provide an up close, interactive experience whilst adhering to social distancing measures. 

Marshall said: “Audio would be a good way to go and camera tracking would work well. I think VR experiences could be deployed in a slightly different way rather than people putting on a headset, especially with the transfer of a headset and all of the sweat from somebody else wearing it. Before where you might have had a queue of people waiting to have a go, that's probably going to be less likely now.  It's about creating an immersive experience within a physical space so I think that there's going to be a lot more multi-channel sound systems used so that you can place objects in a 3D space, projecting onto uneven surfaces rather than just projecting onto a flat wall, you're actually doing something a lot more creative and a lot more unusual.

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“You can play more with things like smoke and smell sense, it's about creating that experience for people because that's ultimately why people go to a museum or exhibition. The more interesting you can make that for them, the more likely they are to come away with some sort of memory.”

It’s not just museum spaces that can benefit from the lessons to be learned, with considerations now being made for other markets such as corporate and restaurant spaces that, in pre-pandemic times, were not even considered. 
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Marshall explained: “One of the other things that comes up is to do with acoustics. I saw a post about restaurants where the pre-covid design ethos was to have a very reverberant space so that people's voice levels go up and up and you get a hub of noise that creates an atmosphere. The problem is that in that environment, you're raising your voice so that you can be heard over the table next to you and the louder you raise your voice, the more you're going to spit. There are now discussions as well about how restaurants could put more acoustic dampening in to quieten down the space so that you don't have to raise your voice. 

“There's a lot of talk from manufacturers, about bringing your own device. It’s been talked about for probably as long as I've been in the industry, but I'm starting to see that a bit more now. I know Mersive are looking at ways of avoiding having to use touchscreens, people asking ‘Why can't I send a file to my phone from someone else rather than having to do it in other ways?’.

"I think we might see that and that will form new patterns of how people work. I think the Covid-19 pandemic has gone a long way to demystify the whole working from home and remote element. I think that that might start to change patterns slowly or advance it. We've seen over the years, certainly with corporate projects where it's becoming more popular, I think it'll accelerate as a result of this where it can. Technology can enable that.”

“It'll be interesting to see who considers it to that level and the ones that carry on as per normal. You can put the greatest technology in the world into a building but if people don't use it then what's the point?”