"Developing at home content is great for increasing the accessibility of museums and galleries"
An Interview with Anna Lowe, Co-Founder and Director of Partnerships at Smartify
A key theme to emerge from the Covid-19 Impact Survey was the common challenge that studio-museums across the network faced when it came to transferring and utilising the digital. 88% of respondents told us how the increased their overall digital activity. With digital collections, tours, programming and events all becoming part of the new normal, the ASMN spoke to Anna Lowe, Co-Founder and Director of Partnerships at Smartify to get her perspective.
Stacey Clapperton: Hi Anna, we have spoken to Smartify before about all things digital. Before the pandemic, you mainly operated via an app which visitors to museums and galleries used on site, scanning artworks on location. There's been a number of changes made to the way in which Smartify works in the past year, could you talk us through them?
Anna Lowe: We have definitely thought a-lot about the entire visitor journey, at home and on-site. For audiences at home the Smartify platform now functions as a website and includes a 'virtual exhibition' media player; videos on demand (like Netflix or YouTube) and listings for museum events (online and on-site) that audiences can book are coming soon. We wanted to ensure that museums could host the different types of content they are using to reach audiences at home. For on-site visitors we have improved the experience so that visitors who do not want to download the native app straight away but can simply scan a QR and access a web-app including guides and visitor information.
"Last year was one of the most challenging in the sector, with 98% of the studio museums experiencing a period of closure in 2020 because of the pandemic"
SC: it goes without saying, that last year was one of the most challenging in the sector, with 98% of the studio museums we spoke to experiencing a period of closure in 2020 because of the pandemic. Was the decision to redesign certain features, such as the tour player on the desktop version of Smartify, in response to more people using Smartify at home or was it something that was planned for a while?
AL: It was always planned - we wanted people to be able to learn about a collection before physically going in person or review their favourite items and go deeper after a visit. Developing at home content is also great for increasing the accessibility of museums and galleries. During closures audiences all around the world were unable to visit their favourite sites but prior to the pandemic access in person and online was already an issue keeping audiences out of museums. Increasing access to culture was a big part of this development with the pandemic only emphasising this need more. Luckily, we have a flexible product roadmap and always respond to the needs of our partner museums.
SC: The ways in which institutions engaged with audiences changed dramatically. Did you see a divide between institutions who already had an element of digital infrastructure in place and those without, in terms of the type and quality of digital content that they were producing?
AL: I think digital infrastructure is less important than having skilled content creators, editors etc. If you want to reach audiences you can do that on platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Smartify, but you need to have people who can tell engaging stories using video and audio. I think this is the major difference.
“When it comes to moving activities online, digital infrastructure, staff skills and capacity have been highlighted as the main areas of concern."
SC: Before the pandemic, 72% of our members had 10 or fewer staff members in the organisation. The last year has had a devastating impact on job security with prolonged periods of job retention schemes and redundancies made. When it comes to moving activities online, digital infrastructure, staff skills and capacity have been highlighted as the main areas of concern for our network members. How can Smartify help with these concerns?
AL: Smartify is a low-cost tool that allows you to create and publish guides and visitor information on-site; and publish videos, exhibitions, event listings for audiences at-home. The platform uses drag and drop tools that require no coding, so staff can easily create digital experiences without any technical experience.
The platform has an existing audience of over 2.5 million users who are self-selected art and culture lovers. Museums can send out a push notification to reach these audiences, so it is a far more targeted audience then something like Instagram where the only way to reach people is through paid advertising.
Finally, we have an excellent in-house content creation team lead by Wouter van der Horst who previously spent 7 years in the digital learning team of the Rijksmuseum. The team includes editors who have worked on content for venues like Royal Museums Greenwich, London and previously for the BBC and Amazon Prime. We can help with everything from script writing to production.
SC: There are certainly common themes of innovation and resilience amongst our network members with 88% of our members increasing their overall digital activity. Are there any institutions that Smartify have worked with that produced exciting and engaging content that others could use as inspiration?
AL: We've seen a lot of museums produce really amazing pieces of content from home - often with only small teams - over the past year and a half. Recently the Bank of England Museum, London, , launched a virtual exhibition celebrating the new £50 note that made great use of the flexibility of Smartify. The tour uses video, audio and images to explore the life of Alan Turing and takes you through the design process. Another really great piece of content audiences have been enjoying at home and on site is the Museum of London's Dub London tour that includes archive footage and a curator walkthrough. We've actually also been working on our own video tours highlighting artists and I'm a big fan of our latest one on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi.
“We've seen a lot of museums produce really amazing pieces of content from home - often with only small teams”
SC: But of course, with any visitor experience, whether it is in person or online, accessibility needs to be considered from the beginning. How is Smartify addressing accessibility needs and requirements of its users?
AL: Smartify is already available in most languages including French, Spanish, Italian, German, Mandarin, Arabic and Hebrew. It also has an A rating for accessibility. We are currently working on a re-design that will take it to an AA (the highest) rating by early 2022. The phone uses a lot of the native functionality available in smartphones like text-to-voice, font-size adjustments etc. But we always conduct user testing with audiences with range of access requirements.
SC: In addition to managing collections and exhibitions, 50% of our members also told us that they moved their learning and educational offer online and 75% now host virtual events online. Is Smartify also able to support with these initiatives?
AL: Online events will be listed on Smartify in the coming months. These show on the museum venue page and also a shared calendar where audiences can view online classes and events from all participating museums. Our hope is to drive more traffic to the programmes being organised.
SC: In many ways the pandemic forced things to become more insular and institutions becoming separated from their audiences, but there are positives to be found. Before the pandemic, our members reported that less than 25% of their visitors were international. At Watts Gallery – Artists' Village in particular, we saw our global reach increase during the pandemic. Is this a trend that you have seen with other museums and galleries?
AL: Yes definitely! The Smartify audience grew a lot and people were looking for inspiration from museums across the world instead of just their own local museums. The key thing now is to translate that growing interest into revenue streams for the museum through online classes, digital memberships and future visits.
Smartify is the world's most downloaded museum app and online platform. Explore Smartify to find artwork, information and tours from museums around the globe. Interested in bringing Smartify to your venue? Get in contact here.