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ICOM UK Interview Series: best digital practices of Chinese museums and galleries – Shanghai Museum

In the latest in our series of interviews with international museum professionals, we explore the best digital practices of Chinese museums and galleries.

Huaiyuan (Robert) Ren, History and Philosophy of Art Student at the University of Kent and Student and Emerging Professionals Representative at ICOM UK, interviews Liu Jian at the Shanghai Museum.


HR: Where do you work and what is your current position?

LJ: Hello, I am the deputy director of information center of Shanghai Museum, Liu Jian, I am in charge of the digitization of our museum.


HR: Please introduce the online/digital practices that your museum has been doing since the post-pandemic era.

LJ: At present, we may not have fully walked out of the pandemic, but admittedly, during this period of time, great changes have taken place in our social environment, or should I say social ecology. We can see from the reports of UNESCO and ICOM, that the museum industry itself is facing a lot of pressure, how can we turn pressure into power, a very important aspect is to use digital means, in particular, the effective communication of the museum through online methods.

From the perspective of the information center, after the pandemic was under control here in China, the following online measures have been taken to strengthen the digital powers of Shanghai Museum:

  1. We carried out revisions to our official website. A “lightweight” mobile app version was introduced, while upgraded the web version with a more friendly interface, more powerful functions and clearer pictures of cultural relics. The mobile terminal supports major mainstream models of iOS and Android systems, which enables the audience to quickly and conveniently obtain information on mobile phones and other devices, and comfortably experience online services such as “visit booking”, “collection browsing” and “exhibition introduction”.

Second, we simplified the level of the information search mechanism. Viewers can directly access all the columns from the navigation bar and shortcut bar on the home page with one click, which improves browsing efficiency and strengthens the relevance between the main columns. After the upgrade, the viewers can not only obtain the introduction texts of the collections in the collection column, or appreciate the large HD pictures of cultural relics, but also try the new AR function, scan and identify some of the collection images, and experience “moving” cultural relics, observe details, and improve interactive experiences. We have also optimized the intelligent retrieval function, added “relating knowledge tags” in the introduction of collections, to facilitate the viewers with relating collections of the same type, which is a welcoming step in the knowledge association of data.

  1. The mobile navigation app has been improved to create a full-time-space navigation service system with three application scenarios: remote, on-site and mobile. This mobile app adopts a variety of adaptation modes:

(a) For example, the automatic adaptation of the visiting mode: for those without a clear purpose of visiting, the app provides the function of locating + recommendation, which can help you to quickly find the important collections near your location.

(b) Multi-level adaptation of visiting needs: brief introductions of exhibits written by professionals are prepared for the public, and both text and audio are available according to needs. You can either read the pictures and words at home or listen while visiting on site, enjoying a kind of “quiet” company. For the details that are difficult to be displayed or paid attention to in the exhibitions, the guiding app provides a detailed display. Here you can see the paintings and calligraphy that have not been fully displayed in the exhibition hall, and see the patterns, inscriptions and accessories of the objects in detail–to see the “unseen”.

For the time, craft, circulation and related cultural background of the objects, the Shanghai Museum Guiding App provides rich and extensive information to help you understand their stories, knowledge and history in a broader dimension. For some specialized knowledge of cultural relics, we customized relevant topics: Through the guiding app, you can know the names of bronzes wares which were like “a sealed book”, understand the casting process of the “lost wax” method of gold bronze Buddha statues, distinguish the main categories of color glazes of the Ming and Qing dynasties and representative objects, etc.

(c) Diversified adaptation of information display: According to the information characteristics of exhibiting objects, different digital display methods such as static graphics, dynamic video and AR are adopted under the principle of “adjust measures to objects”, so as to change the static display of the exhibition halls into dynamic expression, restore their former usage and existence scenes, and to make the tours more intuitive and understandable.

  1. A booking system is introduced. Visitors can only enter the museum after booking online. The system can control the flow of visitors in different times of the day, which is conducive to the management of visitors during the pandemic and also sped up the entry rate.


HR: How is your museum interacting and connecting with the public under the influence of the pandemic

LJ: Under the impact of COVID-19, museums are connected to the public mainly through online activities.

After the outbreak in 2020, on 28th January, our online project is launched, this is the first online museum project of the national museum system since the outbreak, its content includes an online exhibition, 3D virtual exhibition hall (many people mix these two concepts as one, but I think there is a difference), monthly collection, 3D collection showcase, culture and museum courses, videos of other activities and lectures. There are approximately 230 resources available for viewing. After it went online, we got positive feedback from the public, of course, the successful launch of our online special project was benefited from our daily accumulation of resources.

Take the online exhibitions as an example, which is the most popular section, since 2012, Shanghai Museum has launched self-curated online exhibitions and has paid attention to the distinction between them and on-site exhibitions from the very beginning. We tried to make it into a different exhibition form other than the physical exhibitions within venues. From graphics to multimedia, then to data explorations, we have made approximately 30 thematic digital online exhibitions, and also developed the in-depth introduction of the museum collections–monthly collection section, using a variety of multimedia tools for one object, giving multi-dimensional and comprehensive interpretations, we can even call it a “single display” digital exhibition, it is very popular among museum lovers.

Meanwhile, all kinds of other online activities were held, such as the “Cloud Dialogue: The Strength of Museums Under Pandemic” which was held by the Shanghai Museum on 15th July last year. 18 museums from China, United States, Britain, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong China, were Invited by Shanghai Museum, their directors, head of the Asian Art department, and curators all gathered online, to have a conversation on the current situation and future of the museum with the help of the Internet and multimedia platform.

Of course, museum lectures, online education and cultural creative activities are also important ways to connect with the public.


HR: What are the main challenges of your museum in 2021?

LJ: The social environment, or ecology, changed considerably during the pandemic, and in the case of museums, were under great pressure, one of the biggest challenges is the overall economic downturn, which led to a decline in visitor numbers and the resulting pressure on museum funding. But as far as the digitization of museums is concerned, we can say that it’s facing a period of opportunity, the importance of digitization was recognized during the pandemic and as a result, more support has been given in policy and planning from the government, which is now reflected at national and sectoral level. There should be more in the future, depending on whether the museum people can seize this window to take off and start anew.

The Shanghai government has recently been actively promoting digital transformation, and one of the keywords mentioned repeatedly is “rebuild”. I have always believed that museums are in great need of digital transformation, and how they can use digital thinking, concepts, tools and methods to carry out a systematic ecological rebuilding of museums, including the internal paradigm of museums, such as research, business, management, services, etc., as well as the relationship between museums and society, such as the rebuilding of openness, in order to achieve the goal of freeing museums from their closed and conservative characters, as well as for them to transform and upgrade. Of course, this will not happen overnight, it will be a long and gradual process, but someone will have to take the steps and promote it.

The key is that digitalization goes straight to the core of the museum’s business, and thus making a decisive difference to the transformation of the museum’s core systems. For example, our Dong Qichang Digital Cultural Project which was launched in 2019, goes straight to the core of museums – research and display. On the one hand, through mass data analysis and innovative technological applications, it provides new research horizons and forms new research resources, using the comprehensive connection between data to efficiently integrate the original museum academic resources and break the already solidified museum academic ecology; on the other hand, it presents data correlations by visual means and applies research results to our display. It is hoped that the presentation and interpretation of data will lead to the discovery of knowledge, moreover, make knowledge transference as the goal, and the presentation of data as the means to guide the audience to learn, discover and acquire on their own, and to form a new paradigm of knowledge production and service.


HR: Please introduce to us some of your recent exhibitions and projects.

LJ: Recently, the on-site exhibitions held by Shanghai Museum mainly include: “An Everlasting Spring: The Art of Painting and Calligraphy in Shanghai“, “The Perpetual Prosperity: Special Exhibition of Donated Ding Vessels to the Shanghai Museum“, “Painting with Threads: Kesi and Embroidery during the Ming and Qing Dynasties“, etc. Online digital exhibition includes “Catching Spring — Digital Thematic Exhibition of Jiangnan Culture“, and we are developing another exhibition “Emperor Song Huizong and His Time – Digital Cultural Thematic Exhibition”.