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Digital struggles and lots of non-digital questions

As a new medewerker digitale educatie at Boijmans, I landed in the turbulence of multiple transitions. During this time a lot of important work has to be done. Not only a huge digital heritage has to be preserved in an efficient and sustainable way, but the dialogue with our visitor and education (mediator?) community has to be maintained and steered on new platforms. During all these necessary work we can already raise the question: what new space opens up for our Online Collection within the following transition years?

Almost a year ago I started my work for the education department. Boijmans (both the collection and the office) was about to move out from its well established beautiful building. Everybody was bracing themselves to continue to work in a very uncertain future. Reading back earlier experiences by others in this blog I am reminded that transitional times like these, raise the importance of sharing knowledge resources within an organisation. If we see Boijmans as a collective of museum workers, how do we retain all their knowledge and the valuable data and content that was accumulated over the years, while going through all these changes?

In the beginning of 2019, one of the first projects I got involved in, set the goal to save the walls of the old museum building in a 360-degree digital space. Even though as a newbie I knew little about the building, I felt a big responsibility in archiving its atmosphere and the final collection presentation, before it closed its doors for at least seven years. My colleagues and I found it important to have at least an online navigable copy of the space where visitors could still get a sense of the museum and its collection.

The temporary fire station in the museum, as seen in the 360 degree tour with the Maurizio Cattelan

Before closing the museum doors, all of us who worked in the shades of the office, could always stand up from our desk and walk into the exhibition space through a backdoor to get a physical sense of the museum and our engagement with the audience. Where does all that planning and collaboration behind the scenes actually end up? What kind of interaction does it generate? Boijmans employees could look for these answers anytime they wanted by checking out the exhibition space. We could see with our own eyes for example which artworks were the audience’s favourites and check how many of the info tablets were in use (as we did regularly during the exhibition nederland ⇄ bauhaus). I saw among my colleagues that this daily engagement meant a lot to them and it will be quite a challenge to keep up with this practice from our temporary office space overlooking the Erasmus bridge. Naturally, not the building but these everyday check-ups with the audience were making up a very strong cement within the organization.

My colleagues and I working on digital education, are trying to tackle this physical distance in different ways, for example by volunteering as an assistant for the Boijmans in de Klas program (bringing real art to the classroom). Also, we are answering all the questions the audience asks us via the ‘Ask us anything’ option on our collection website. This functionality is forever flowing, offering sometimes difficult, sometimes very entertaining questions. The ‘Ask us anything’ function is an obviously vivid digital chamber (1,293 questions answered so far!) where people can engage with all the digitised artworks on the Boijmans website and get answers to their questions from even the most expert museum curator.

There is another important transition which digital museum education has to tackle. The video platform ARTtube, a gigantic project initiated by Boijmans over a decade ago, has come to an end. Our task was to transfer and archive all of it in the best possible and sustainable way for the future.

Boijmans produced and published more than 1,400 videos throughout the last two decades, most of which were published on ARTtube. Many of them are connected to objects from the collection. Our biggest exercise recently is to keep them linked together with the online artworks. We also ask ourselves what else can be done with this vast material and how it can  be useful for tomorrow's rapidly changing digital education.

Scene from Boijmans TV with Arie from security and the Maurizio Cattelan

 “On ARTtube you find special interviews with and video portraits of prominent artists and designers. Museums and art institutions offer a glimpse behind the scenes at the build-up of exhibitions or the restoration of works of art and let their curators and conservators have their say. There's also fiction and experiment, for example in the Boijmans TV television series and in animation and remix films. Every video is free to view.” Arttube.nl

The Online Collection (where the videos and ‘Ask us anything’ functionality are also embedded) is an ever-growing, public catalogue containing 41,000 collection items today. It is open to everyone but we see a bigger potential in such a vast database than only letting it be searchable by artist names, artwork titles, materials, and styles. We are constantly looking for new technologies that could change the way both the public and the employees engage with this digitised collection (and possibly with each other).

And as the title promised we end up with many exciting questions that the transition offers us. In the past months, we approached some of the most exciting interactive media studios in the Netherlands and even AI experts. How could we re-establish the Online Collection as a museum that is open 24/7? Can we do more than only reproducing proven interpretation tactics from the museum space onto webpages? Is it possible to build another kind of space where we invite our visitors to dance with this huge catalogue of art? Are we ready to open up towards a co-creation of a knowledge base where every member of the museum community (employee as well as audience) can contribute their personal knowledge, experiences and dreams surrounding the collection?

You seem to be excited about these questions just like us, so keep an eye on our education blog and social media. Stay up to date on our adventures in the digital realm!

by Mate Pacsika, fellow digital education

Boijmans's first browsable digital collection in 1990. Photo by Tom Haartsen