The article was first published on the British Council’s China Now website https://chinanow.britishcouncil.cn/stories/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.
Digitising Collections—For Posterity, Preservation and Democratisation of Information
Generally, in the hierarchy of needs, Chinese museums put “preservation” as the key mission. The Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 revived the urgency of protecting collections when some clay objects were damaged by the tremors at the Sanxingdui archaeological site in Guanghan, Sichuan.[iii] The site contains buried relics of the Shu Culture—an important Bronze Age civilisation, the existence of which has challenged the usual narrative of the spread and development of Han culture throughout China. Following the earthquake, the museum embarked on a large investment in 3D scanning technology to preserve its collection and 3D printing technology to assist in the repair of broken objects. The 3D scanners and printers can be used to make molds of objects to produce lifelike replicas and repair certain parts of broken artefacts. The technology is preservative in another way in that it avoids damage to the artefacts through the traditional mold-making process, and makes for a swifter more efficient conservation process. For instance, the staff selected a bronze mask missing an ear for repair. The mask was symmetrical so they employed 3D scanning and printing technology to replace the missing ear but also produced a complete replica which was displayed alongside the repaired mask.[iv]
The widespread use of these technologies in museums, however, is significantly held back by the lack of technical skills in this emerging technology. Other barriers include the cost of the materials and the fact that the broken parts of objects which are 3D printed then need to be sutured onto the original object. Another hurdle lies in the fact that the 3D-printed sections must be painted because the 3D printing materials are only available in a uniform colour. [v]
In the case of open-air archaeological sites, the issue of preservation has become severely pressing. The Mogao Caves, near Dunhuang, Gansu which lie along the old Silk Road have been subject to a history of plunder and pillage. The site consists of a complex of 462 temples which date back to 336 AD and contain lively ornate decorations, numerous Buddha statues, and many important scriptures. Today, the biggest threat to their existence is the 6,000 visitors whose entry and exit wreak havoc with climate control. In order, to first preserve the murals, detailed scans were made of the cave which form the bases of a website-based virtual tour and two films which are projected on an immersive dome screen in the cinema on site.
This approach serves multiple benefits. Not only does it create a “captive audience” for the museum team to properly introduce the history of the caves, but it also allows viewers to soak in the details and majesty of the murals given that the images are significantly more dramatic in their cinematic incarnation than they are within the gloom of the caves.
Onsite AR, VR and MR Experiences
While Chinese museums have traditionally been fixated on having the best objects and collections, VR demonstrates that learning and engagement can happen even without the robust collection of a super museum. Especially since many smaller Chinese museums tend to be “collection poor”—the pivot towards more experiential, information, and narrative-driven exhibition-making is a sensible strategy. In the past five years, there has been a virtual explosion of AR, MR and VR technology.
For instance, the Hunan Museum which did not have much in the way of Egyptian artefacts, collaborated with the Egyptian Museum in Turin to present an exhibition of both artefacts and experiences. The exhibition, “Pharos, Gods, and Mummies,” was launched on September 29, 2018, with 230 pieces from Turin and a VR experience which helped visitors envision the tomb of Nefertiti—its cavern-like architecture decorated with mysterious symbols.
Archaeological sites, with their inherent lack of color, make good candidates for VR experiences, especially when the sites are no-longer viewable in person as with the Baiheliang Underwater Museum—now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Before the building of the Three Gorges Dam, Baiheliang was a cliff which was submerged during most of the year and would only resurface every few years in Winter when water levels of the Yangtze dropped. The cliff is inscribed with images of fish, cranes, and Bodhisattvas dating back to the Tang Dynasty which recorded events such as good harvests. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam put the cliff under water for good, but the Baiheliang Underwater Museum VR Experience 白鹤梁水下博物馆VR体验 attempted to recreate what was lost beneath the waters, through an interactive experience of the former site.
Elsewhere in the museum, MR was used to recreate a porcelain studio. The “A Millennia of Kiln Technology, MR, Experience Zone” [translation mine] 千年’窑’望MR体验区allowed visitors to navigate the process of porcelain making as though they were potters working with clay and glazes. Meanwhile in Chongqing, “The Old Maps of Old Chongqing Mixed Reality Experience” [translation mine] 老地图·老重庆MR体验”transported viewers into a wildly different version of their home city. Hosted at the Baiheliang Underwater Museum, this mixed reality experience involved a HoloLens headset, which allowed visitors to look at a physical map in front of them and also see animations of the streets filled with mandarins in Qing Dynasty garb and long trailing queues. In this MR experience, the mandarins are at the service of the viewer explaining the significance of the city’s many gates and landmarks. Visitors used voice commands and gestures to guide their own experience—for instance, in an apothecary in Chuqimen—a district steeped in a strong TCM culture—they could use their hands to reach out and select different herbs.[vi] The Museum was featured in the 2018 Best in Heritage Conference as a Project of Influence, for its work with AR and VR and is a rare example of this kind of application in a smaller provincial museum.
Reaching Young Audiences through Digital Channels – Palace Museum
As with China’s special economic zones, certain high-level state institutions can become laboratories for musicological practice receiving funding and support to embark on ambitious initiatives which can serve as examples for the not only the domestic but the global museum industry. The Palace Museum has become this kind of “flagship” museum and with 17 million visitors a year in 2018, its successes are widely visible, making it an important pillar of domestic and international soft power. The museum’s relatively few exhibition halls and scant interpretive material also make it a good candidate for the delivery of interpretation through a museum guide app framework.
Beginning in 2013, the Palace Museum, collaborating with both tech (Tencent) and cultural entities (China Academy of Fine Arts Digital Media Studio), began to produce a number of surprisingly-good apps, a total of nine to date, which offer a smooth user experience, a refined graphic style, and interesting content. The first app to be launched was 12 Beauties, which explores the Qing Dynasty genre painting of “shinu hua”—idealised portraits of women painted for an audience of largely male admirers. Looking past the element of “male gaze” in the naming of the app (after all this was before “me-too”), we find that the app allows viewers to immerse themselves inside the world of palace life with 360 interactive views and close-ups of select objects from the museum’s collection. In fact, many of the apps created by the museum focus on a sensual enjoyment of the beauty of the collection—allowing viewers to casually soak in the ideas and aesthetics of the palace without the elbows and megaphones of the tourist stampede.
Another app Palace Museum Every Day 每日故宫allows viewers to casually explore the collection through a kind of calendar-based app which features an artefact each day, with high-res images and didactics, plus note taking and sharing functions. Users looking for a more active learning experience can download, Auspicious Symbols of the Forbidden City 紫禁城祥瑞 which guides the viewer through the collection in a more directed fashion. Done in a tasteful muted palette, like most of the palace museum apps, it uses the Forbidden City as a backdrop for cartoon animated animals such as dragons, and phoenixes endearing characters rendered in a refined style (not the clunky graphics found in Chinese mainstream games or cartoons such as Pleasant Sheep 喜洋洋). The user first selects a symbol—let’s say a dragon—and then is presented with items of the collection which pertain to the selected animal, for instance, a “hongshan” jade dragon from the Neolithic Era or a blue and white Yuan Dynasty vase with a dragon pattern crawling across its shiny surface. Meanwhile clicking on the Phoenix—an auspicious symbol for brides—sends the reader into an exploration of the wedding rituals of the palace. Created specifically for children, the Emperor for a Day皇帝的一天 app features a colourful animation style which takes visitors on a romp through the Forbidden City with a baby lion prompting them to tackle a series of challenges which pertain to life within the palace. Upon completing the challenges, the player collects different artefacts. As we have seen with the Hangzhou Kiln Museum app, “gamification” can be a powerful pedagogical tool.
The apps created by the palace museum also vary along the public/private spectrum. Some encourage private experiences and contemplation of the artefacts as an experience in itself, completely walled off from the “in real life” (IRL) experience of visiting the Forbidden City, while others such as Palace Community 故宫社区 promote social interaction with certain functions (information about exhibitions etc.) to encourage the visitor to visit in person. Palace Community is sort of like a “sim” palace where participants can build their own grand residence and visit the houses of other users. This suite of apps is unique among museum-commissioned apps in China in that it seeks to create a “community of culture-lovers” rather than act as a shop, ticket sales channel or museum guide. In this sense, the Palace Museum remains relatively unique, but if given the resources, other Chinese museums may be able to pursue similar strategies.
Beyond these apps, the Palace Museum has tried various other means to reach out to younger viewers, for instance, through animated GIFs—actually stickers which can be used within the WeChat platform. These “stickers” include images of emperors wearing sunglasses with the word “super” in the background, or emperors with lasers shooting out of their fingers with words, “I am a ray of light.” Other initiatives include commissioning popstars to make thematic songs about traditional subjects. Though this may seem like an ailing church hiring a Christian rock band to draw the next generation into the pews, it’s a remarkable way to bring the museum into the minds of younger non-visitors. Teaming up with music streaming platform QQ Music and tech giant Tencent, the Palace Museum launched the youth talent initiative NEXT IDEA, which resulted in a newly-commissioned song by Jackson Yee[vii]—a willowy young singer with a kind of feigned solemnity, a member of the Chinese boy band TFboys. Yi’s slightly-syrupy folk-pop tune, “Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains” inspired by a Song Dynasty Painting, got no less than 34 million plays.
All of this content, social media campaigns and sales are streamed out through the museum’s Official WeChat account which has 10 million followers. The services of the Palace Museum Official Account are grouped into several different categories: “have a look” 看一看, “browse” 逛一逛, and “get together” 聚一聚. Within these menu options one can find the basic exhibition information, virtual tours 玩转故宫, very-detailed digital guides to be used onsite including interpretation about the architecture, the location of the bathrooms, exits, concessions, book shops, ticket counters, and the individual exhibitions with audio and text explanations. There are also online WeChat stores—the Forbidden City Cultural Products Store [translation mine] 故宫博物馆文创店 and the Forbidden City WeChat Store [translation mine] 故宫微店, selling a vast array of products, everything from 200 RMB Palace Museum-branded lipsticks to Qing Dynasty divans for 118,000 RMB.
A Fetishization of Technology
Though technology has been used effectively in many cases to improve many critical functions of the museum including visitor experience, sometimes the fetishization of technology over other more basic concerns such as exhibition design and storytelling—leads to dead ends. For instance, on a virtual wander through an exhibition of Korean artifacts at the Zhejiang Museum, we see lifeless images of objects in glass cases and didactic on the walls. The exhibition design is very traditional, just vitrines and didactic, the text of which cannot be read from the virtual tour. Frankly, this lackluster exhibition seems barely worth visiting in person, let alone through the distorted fish-eye lens of the 3D cameras. These 360 virtual tours tend to work best when applied to architectural landmarks and outdoor heritage sites and as the technology develops, we need to continue to ask the question, “How is a virtual tour better than a traditional website in terms of visitor enjoyment, learning outcomes and immersivity?” Sometimes it seems like a case of “chariots before horses,” the basic techniques of exhibition design, narrative flow, thematic coherence, and digital interactive still have a long way to go, but because of the state focus on technology, it is difficult for museums to decouple themselves from this technological trajectory. As de Kloet writes in his discussion of the “platformization of society” “this entanglement between state and corporations appears to accelerate and intensify this process, enhancing the penetration of platform infrastructures in every sphere of life.” This tech focus is, of course, a way for museums to achieve certain benchmarks and KPIs, without really addressing the systematic problems at the root of the Chinese museum experience.
What many museums have yet to realize is that AR, VR, MR, all of these technologies, are merely vehicles, like a chariot, which can be used to take the viewer to any location. But the destination is not always clear. UK creators of multimedia digital experiences, animators, and exhibition designers could provide vital guidance in the creation and development of storylines, the overlay of themes and help improve the quality of exhibition design and graphics.
For the creators of digital content, VR and AR designers, equipment manufacturers of various kinds of smart systems for surveillance and collections management, there appear to be many opportunities. China has several expos which focus on museum technology such as the MPT Expo in Fuzhou, where not only tech providers but many of China’s most prominent museums participate with elaborate booths. There is also the Smart Museum Expo智慧博物馆in Chongqing which focuses on museum technology.
To get an idea of the demand for services of Chinese museums, the website www.szzs360.com publishes all public tenders from many of China’s state museums. For instance, a random search turned up a museum in Foshan which was looking for a vendor to help them with audience analysis and data gathering. The budget was 1 million RMB. Just searching the “Tenders” section of the website with the keyword of “VR” returns over 120 search results from museums all around China. That said, it is no simple process to get into the Chinese market as there is significant effort which goes into the pitching process which may require numerous rounds of gymnastics and vetting before any contracts are inked. Given the delicacy of managing client relationships, interested parties may look for Chinese partners who seek to collaborate with international teams. Museums, as well, who are actively looking for engaging international touring exhibitions from UK partners, will also be keen to explore offerings with digital interactive components which would make them more appealing to a younger demographic. In any case, what should become clear from this article is that we should have no illusions about Chinese museums as being pokey 1.0 sorts of institutions. How many museums in the West can create multiple VR experiences, run multiple apps and online stores at once, generating thousands of new products on a yearly basis and billions of RMB in profits? The Palace Museum may be an outlier, but it’s an example of what can be achieved when government invests in culture in a strategic, albeit not very egalitarian way.