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Digital platforms. New headquarters for cultural institutions

By 28 August 2020No Comments

High-quality, easily accessible online content.

We live in an age when digital archives, libraries and galleries are increasingly necessary, forcing us to become more technological and inquisitive.

The debate surrounding cultural institutions during the recent global pandemic, which prevented us from travelling and making actual use of our cultural heritage, has taken on a number of new aspects. Numerous analyses, studies and articles have focused on the capacity of institutions to remain open to virtual visits and access, despite the forced closure of physical places, and on the skills they have displayed in reaching and engaging different audiences. The spotlight has been placed on all the work that the institutions are doing on social and digital platforms to attract new users and not leave their regular audience high and dry.

Let’s look at museums by way of an example. During the Covid pandemic, four out of five museums increased their digital services to reach their audience, often assigning their staff new tasks in order to tackle the need for more multimedia content. We can read about this in the report by the NEMO – Network of European Museum Organisations, written following a survey that collected 1,000 responses between 24 March and 20 April 2020 from museums in forty-eight countries, mostly in Europe. Almost half of those interviewed stated that the museum where they work is providing one or more new services online.

Despite these efforts, only two out of five museums saw growth in online visitor numbers, with this increase being between 10% and 150% during the period in question.

This was to be expected: the ones that managed to offer the best services, to surprise and to engage their audience in front of a screen were the institutions that, in addition to a good social media manager, already offered excellent online content and platforms designed to allow remote access to their collections. Meanwhile, visitors soon grew bored with improvisations based on superficial accounts, reaching dead ends caused by the absence of routes to explore or a lack of narratives in which they could recognise themselves.

The new Estense Digital Library

The institutions that have been working for some time on digitalising and providing accessing to its heritage include the Gallerie Estensi di Modena, Sassuolo e Ferrara, with the ambitious Estense Digital Library, that is now online and open to everyone. We have known about it and followed it from the very outset, well before the spread of Coronavirus, thanks to the digital communication mentoring we have been providing to this institution since January 2019.

The platform for consulting the digitalised collections of the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria di Modena, which has been online for just over a month, conceals months of recognition, restoration, scanning with special machines and metadatation of library collections, maps and music scores by a team of people from different organisations (Franco Cosimo Panini, Hyperborea, MLOL, Halta Definizione and UniMoRe).

All this has made it possible to enter the Modenese library on a virtual basis and look through beautiful illuminated manuscripts, music scores and ancient manuscripts, in high resolution. And there is more… The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), designed to facilitate access to archives and libraries all over the world, is an open-source technology adopted by the Estense Digital Library, but also by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Smithsonian, to mention but a few, allowing users to create their own profile, carry out research, make notes on content of interest, gather them together in a personal notebook and, lastly, edit image clippings.

A very tangible example of the platform being tried and tested with great success regards the use of high-resolution images that can be explored in detail during the virtual guided tours in Google Meet, which the Gallerie Estensi conducted from 19 April onwards, at the height of lockdown, both for individual users and schools. They used a real-life guide with extensive knowledge about the collections and the use of digital resources, who was fully able to create interesting hypertextual links, far outside the walls of the Gallerie Estensi.

The Estense Digital Library is a precious resource for scholars, a further learning tool for teachers, and also a huge gallery of images able to provide inspiration for lovers of art and printed works. A better explanation is provided by Andrea Zanni from MLOL – the platform that hosts the Estense Digital Library and many other libraries around the world, which have been put online – in this video:


Nevertheless, rich and complex tools requiring a certain degree of computer skill are unlikely to capture the interest of the mass public unless tools are also provided to reveal their potential or unless a form of mediation is provided to assist with their use.

Open Access developed overseas

And here we come to a great example in every sense (particularly as regards accessibility). It was no coincidence that we mentioned the Smithsonian Institution as one of the international institutions to have adopted the IIIF protocol. Just a few days before Italy introduced lockdown, when the USA still seemed to be safe from the pandemic, the Smithsonian Open Access project was launched. This platform makes it possible to search for, download and reuse millions of images free of charge, without having to request authorisation. This is conveyed by the name itself, which is easy to remember and immediately comprehensible: Open Access, to be precise.

Around three million images, 3D models and data of various kinds, made available for public use, from the nineteen Smithsonian museums, nine research centres, libraries, archives and the National Zoo. And the new platform that hosts them is designed to guide users through the contents according to their requirements.

Open Access offers a variety of different features, targeted at different audiences, starting with the geekiest. In fact, people can now access the platform that hosts all the metadata from the digital archive from their own home: two centuries of information linked to images! Then there’s the section devoted to 3D models, where you can get an all-round view of objects from all the Smithsonian institutes: sculptures, car engines, fossils, architectural models… As always, all this can be filtered by type and collection using the options on a dropdown menu.

The Learning Lab, designed to support users, teachers and students in the correct use of Open Access, deserves a particular mention. It provides an explanation of the CC0 licence and guides users through how to use the images properly, illustrating the make-up of the digital archive as a whole, starting with the substantial difference between resources and images. This guide helps researchers to make the right steps and create their own collection of objects that they can share with others. These are just the first steps towards becoming a pro and creating your own Collagasaurus, following the expert advice of James Smithson, the institution’s founder.

Anyone with a relatively inquiring mind will not fail to find content of interest on the platform, which has been so well designed in terms of user experience that people can explore it independently right from the start, guided towards content of interest to them. As a result, the average amount of time users spend looking at the Open Access pages will be fairly high.

The site also publishes data on platform usage, which can be filtered by content type and collection of origin. It does not contain data on the average length of time spent on the site, but a few quick calculations reveal that the ratio between viewing the open assets and the assets that were effectively downloaded onto users’ devices during the first six months of 2020 was 6%, which is a good conversion rate if we consider that an institution can usually hope to sell one ticket per every 1000 online views.

What we can see in the usage statistics section is a screen with just a few figures that are easy to interpret. This is accompanied by text that explains how, thanks to new technology, the Smithsonian aims to reach a much bigger audience compared to the limited number of people who will ever visit its museums in Washington DC and New York. Open Access has a stated objective of reaching one billion people all over the world, following a “digital first” strategy and a new policy of “open access” to content for research and education purposes.

The institution’s statement about wanting to measure visitor engagement through the data collected from various websites, social media and other digital platforms certainly gives a nod to private backers and decision makers.

Opera houses have something to say too

However, let’s put our feet firmly back on the ground and conclude this brief overview with examples of Italian institutions that, unlike the Smithsonian, cannot rely on an annual budget of 1.5 billion dollars. We don’t have too look too hard to find accessible digital platforms, which are easy to use and appealing to both enthusiasts and scholars alike. A number of digital projects developed by opera houses on the Archiui platform are a great example of this.

The archive of the Teatro Regio di Torino provides online users with the entire history of the works that have been performed in this theatre, complete with content of all kinds (images, videos, librettos, performers, etc.) that can also be used for specific courses, although the images are not yet free from copyright and cannot be used in other contexts. The Regio also offers the Regio Digital Board, a two-year course funded by the Open2Change call for entries run by the Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo, designed to engage a young audience in what the theatre has to offer and attract them to its spaces. This also involves coming up with new methods that use digital tools.

Another example is “Nei Palchi della Scala”, which tells stories that have taken place on the stage at the Teatro alla Scala, on the chair sat in by Alessandro Manzoni or in Stendhal’s favourite spot… Born out of a research project developed in partnership with the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi and the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, the digital portal that allows users to virtually explore the stages, discovering their history and those who trod their boards, year after year, can also be consulted on the platform developed by Archiui.

Lastly, it is certainly true to say that this is not the end of the subject we have started here. This is a world that is constantly evolving and we have to stay focused so that we don’t miss any new case studies that might appear on the horizon, such as the introduction of new licences to use images or technology and cutting-edge apps. Nevertheless, we should also not forget that the physical places of culture still exist and that they also need our attention and promotion. They also need to know how to receive visitors who come with a certain amount of knowledge, those who have been drawn in and engaged online, inspiring them to travel the miles to see the object of their design in real life: something that every cultural operator dreams of.


All the images accompanying this article have been taken from the Estense Digital Library (De Sphaera. Sphaerae coelestis et planetarum descriptio, anonymous, 1500, p. 19) and from The Smithsonian Institute, Open Access platform.

Contributor: Elena Bertelli