Experiencing the digital museum at the time of the pandemic: The ethics of multimodal communication with the visitors


BY Sophia Diamantopoulou, Sofia Paschou and Georgios Papaioannou

This blog post addresses museum issues that have arisen in this pandemic. They relate to the digital communication of museums with visitors, the increased online participation of visitors and the ethical challenges linked to the collection of museum Big Data.


Cite this article as: Diamantopoulou, S., Paschou, S. and Papaioannou, G. “Experiencing the digital museum at the time of the pandemic: The ethics of multimodal communication with the visitors,” in PanMeMic, 17/08/2020, https://panmemic.hypotheses.org/778

How have museums dealt with the pandemic? 

The new communicational landscape emerging in response to public health and safety measures due to Covid-19 have moved yet another institution into the digital domain; Museums have been significantly affected at all levels particularly during the extensive period of lock-down across the globe. Most of the functions of museums within the physical space of their exhibitions – display of collections and communication with visitors- have been silenced.

Amidst the overall radical shift to the digital and online, coupled with a blurring of boundaries between the private and the public lives of citizens,

museums have re-emerged and reconstituted themselves as digital online entities.

Displaying collections and communicating with the visitors through museum websites and social networking platforms is not new. It is the sheer intensity of the phenomenon that is unprecedented. During lockdown phases in particular, digital platforms have been the only manifestation of the institution of the museum. This explains why museums have placed increased weight onto their digital profile and activities with visitors.

During the pandemic, museums went fully online, offering online exhibitions, virtual tours and online talks as the new normal. Online tours have served online audiences, while online activities, including games and participatory actions, encouraged individuals to interact with museums. Social media posts kept coming and going. The museum online doors were open day and night, allowing data to enter, exit and return. Traffic in museum platforms, websites and social media rapidly increased. Museum staff talked about collections from their own homes and designed new digital activities for the public.

This offered alternatives to visiting the physical museum and ensured that museums remained visible and accessible in the digital domain via the sheer number of online exhibitions, virtual tours, digital exhibits, blogs, web pages and social media accounts valorizing them. This new museum landscape placed emphasis on visitor participation, the creation of a museum digital community and the creation of digital content as an alternative to the experience of physical collections. However, are the above sufficient as markers of successful curatorship and visitor participation in the long run? More importantly, what are the ethical implications involved?

The museum as a multimodal digital entity during the pandemic

To address the above, we need to think prospectively about the future of communication within the online museum and attend to the museum’s multimodal character in the online environment during the pandemic. The multimodal aspects of communication, including representation, communication and performative action, have been massively intensified. The theoretical domain of multimodal communication as shaped by Gunther Kress bring useful resources to help us articulate this intensity through particular modes, such as image, text, sound and moving image with videos including embodied modes, i.e. such as the movement, gaze and gesture of curators and/or visitors. These modes realise meanings which are further shaped through the affordances of the online media and technologies, (apps, platforms, portals, other). Consequently, it is particularly pertinent to this time to consider ethical issues emerging in conjunction with increased digital multimodality, as museums and visitors now use the full range of digital technologies and online media.

Figure 2 The curator chats series of the Smithsonian Museum features curators taking about sensitive issues from their homes https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/curator-chats

What is the digital imprint of the renewed turn in communication?

The potential for enhanced interactivity across a plurality of media can leave museums and visitors ethically exposed and challenged.  During the pandemic times of significantly enhanced online provision, museums have been inviting more extensive visitor engagement to serve lockdown-ed communities. Museums have employed a wider range of platforms, such as TikTok and YouTube, and have extended their activities on their existing Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. However, this enhanced digital impact has implications arising from the diverse terms of usage of digital media that museums endorse and visitors agree to comply with. This has resulted in an unprecedented and sudden accumulation of Big and personal data requiring immediate and effective management as well as new levels of permissions and ethical assurances. Given the lack of physical access to the museum, all main and secondary activities (e.g. from visiting a collection, following a programme, attending a lecture, communicating with the museum, asking permission for a photograph, etc.) need to be arranged and performed digitally and remotely, and they are now Big in terms of digital data produced.

As a result, ethics have acquired a solely digital dimension that is unique to this pandemic.

Figure 3 A virtual museum tour at the Vatican

What are the ethical implications of new forms of participation in museums?

Several questions arise in relation to the increased risk of disclosing personal data through the currently emerging and future digital practices of the online museum prompting visitor participation: What are the ethical implications of the numerous museum projects relating to collecting/ documenting Covid-19 through audience contributions, as with the case of the Museum of London?  What is the effect of making visible all these aspects of people’s private lives through the diversity of multimodal data that feature in the online museum? Is the “I upload therefore I consent” argument ethically enough? What happens to the videos that museum audiences have uploaded in response to museum invitations to recreate scenes from paintings featuring their bodies, home interiors and household items, as with the case of the Getty Museum? Re-enacting a famous painting has featured as a challenge on Facebook for a while and through the Getty Museum activity it has enabled a blending of institutional and social media practices

The newly configured multimodal online environment, rich in personal data, necessitates a revisiting of laws and ethics regulating museum ethics, foregrounding issues of privacy. What is currently lawful does not necessarily mean that it is or should be ethical. Visitors’ traces of their digital identity are often beyond the jurisdiction of national laws that currently regulate and protect the physical museum and its digital operation within national boundaries. Does the museum have an ethical obligation to protect the international online community it strives to create? What happens when members of this community can be identified by states and censored (even imprisoned or exiled), if their material is deemed inappropriate in different political contexts?

Is there an ethical way forward?

A good starting point can be for museums to consider ways to facilitate the digital right of visitors ‘to be forgotten’.

This right of visitors to withdraw from a discursive position adopted publicly and exercised only within the digital domain is currently not supported by the terms and conditions of use of social media platforms which operate globally. The right to be forgotten is a step beyond the right to erase and delete content. It is a waiver of legal consequences that needs to be reframed and rethought along with ethical provisions for both the museum and the visitor with regards to their digital behavioural data. Museums may want to embrace internationally endorsed ethical guidelines, turning to Article 17 of GDPR  European law as an instance of how this right can become a statutory requirement more globally. Existing codes of ethics and laws about privacy, digital security, digital censorship, personal data protection and copyright need to be updated at a local and global level.

Reframing multimodal communication and ethics in times of social change

Museum communication is mediated through digital artefacts that have now resumed new meanings within the new social and digital landscape; a reframing that is not only the result of the pandemic, but also arises in conjunction with recent social movements. The effect and impact of the virus has been exacerbated by new priorities arising from the Black Lives Matter movement, making museums more accountable for their colonial pasts and more engaged in a democratic and inclusive future.The Black Lives Matter movement has re-ignited interest and a need for museums to engage in social action and position themselves as participatory institutions in the service of society.

This emerging need to clear themselves from their colonial pasts and engage in social responsibility projects, and activism has been reframed because of the pandemic.

Museums have moved the discussion of sensitive issues and the communication with their publics out of the museum walls into the public digital domain; and along with this comes the increased exposure of museum audiences’ private data.

Challenging social issues, such as the destruction of public statues, police violence, colonialism, racism and discrimination have featured in museum online forums, tweets and other social media capturing in multimodal ways the positions of the institutions as well as the responses and digital traces of visitors that museums have increasingly invited.  This discursive positioning of online museum visitors is done through multiple modes that all realise discourses and communicate the visitors’ digital identities. This way, the multimodal posts of visitors realise meanings that arise in modes beyond text, revealing the visitors’ discursive positions and practices.

The case of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture

This is an interesting example of a museum that opened discussions about sensitive issues into the public sphere. Their portal ‘Talking About Race’ is ‘designed to help individuals, families, and communities talk about racism, racial identity and how forces shape every aspect of our society’.

The museum’s Facebook group includes posts documenting expressions of protest in relation to the recent uprisings against police violence, making the museum a depository of contemporary sensitive data. The trails of  responses by the visitors include a significant number of posts with pejorative, racist and abusive comments The conversation trails with responses by visitors bring private domains into a different kind of visibility which would not have been possible in the physical museum. By performing its democratic role to facilitate conversations on challenging race issues and induce social change, the museum facilitates the sharing of personal data, as the posts make visible the identities and ideological positions of people with ‘dissident’ voices or those of people aligned with the positions of the museum.

Figure 4 : The ‘Taking about Race’ web portal at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture

Is there any room for ethical considerations in this new multimodal museum domain?

A significant dimension in the online future of museums is the issue of digital citizenship, which refers to behaviour norms regarding technology use, misuse and abuse. As the online museum operates beyond state/ national boundaries, it is unclear to what extent the laws in the country of museum registration can be binding elsewhere in the world. Viewing the current and future museum visitors as an international group of digital citizens exercising their right of communication and participation is pertinent during these times, when the boundaries between offline and online life are blurred even further. An understanding of the gains and losses of the new online communication landscape shaped by Covid-19 is an attempt towards this, as it can enable museums to reconceptualize curatorship and collecting as well as education and communication with visitors. Considering the well-documented argument that digital access to heritage lead to its democratization, one can think that this new reality could be the opportunity for the museum to reposition itself in relation to society. This calls for museums to engage in dual action: a) to initiate mechanisms for ethical assurance that are globally valued and protect digital citizenship and b) to accord recognition to the multimodally realised discursive positions and views of the visitors as a significant part of their identity and personal data.

The multimodal ethical online museum: envisaging ways forward with ethics, data and multimodality

The online society as shaped during this pandemic has dictated that museums need to respond institutionally to new communication challenges, attending to both multimodality and ethics. If the museum priorities so far have had to do with materializing its democratic and participatory functions, the new state of affairs point towards the adoption of a new discourse; that of the multimodal and ethical online museum, arising in response to the need for new theoretical tools to account of the position that museums are currently assuming amidst social changes.

Maybe now more than ever, we need a revised definition of the museum along the lines of its power to communicate meanings multimodally and digitally, and its obligation to conduct this ethically.


Sophia Diamantopoulou is Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL Institute of Education

Sofia Paschou is Research Associate at the Ionian University, Corfu

Georgios Papaioannou is Associate Professor at UCL Qatar

Cite this blog post
sophiadiamantopoulou (2020, August 17). Experiencing the digital museum at the time of the pandemic: The ethics of multimodal communication with the visitors. PanMeMic. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/snpr

3 Responses

  1. Luca says:

    Hello, you have written an excellent post about this topic. I have a question about the digital citizenship part you wrote, do you might have an example to illustrate a situation that would cause challenges for the ‘what extent the law of the country the museums is registered applies world wide?’, would that be with virtual tours?

  2. Louise Ravelli says:

    These are hugely important questions that you raise, and underline the fundamental shift from ‘museums as experts’ to ‘museums as facilitators’, where the public’s participation is integral to the meanings being made. As you say, understanding the multimodal nature of communication in contemporary museums, as well as the ethics thereof, is critical. Thanks for a provocative and stimulating article.

  3. Najma Al Zidjaly says:

    Intriguing. Thank you.

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