1000 steps into a digital direction: UP Museums have more digitised on Google Arts & Culture

Posted on September 28, 2023

In just two years, the University of Pretoria (UP) Museums have digitised 1052 items with 9 online exhibitions (stories) onto Google Arts & Culture (GAC), the leading platform for digital collections and virtual exhibitions. Other than investment in time, regardless of human or financial resources or size of collection, Google Arts & Culture, is a democratic platform used by over 2000 museums globally to provide museums free access to digital technology.

“For Heritage Month this September, we are pleased to share with all our staff, students, alumni, museum patrons, followers and other university museum connections that we have finally reached over the 1000 mark on Google Arts & Culture. This means, with a steady investment in time, the UP Museums have increasingly positioned access to the University of Pretoria Collections to virtually anyone, anywhere and anytime” shared the Head of the UP Museums, Dr Sian Tiley-Nel.

Access lies at the heart of the contemporary university museum, breaking geographical boundaries as the UP Museums attempt to connect our collections to gain wider public and research interest and to openly share the collections through online exhibitions driven by storytelling. The most recent online exhibition launched on Heritage Day 24 September 2023 is “All Gold is Gold” https://artsandculture.google.com/story/0QVRUFJ7nUsYeA provides insight into the remarkable archaeological gold collection, sharing how gold was sourced, mined, produced and used as personal symbols of power and prestige prior to the 13th century in southern Africa. While GAC is largely visually driven, the increased importance of digital storytelling and the capability to share primary archival photographs and deeper content makes engagement even more compelling.

The UP Museums partnered and launched with the Google Institute on 11 August 2021. This was in response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and to begin having more international visibility. In just one year, the UP Museum collections have reached over 183 countries with 67888 page views. Since 2021, the UP Museums have actively been using GAC analytics for their virtual presence to use the data to curate exhibitions, inform new exhibition narratives, and enhance engagement with the public online by providing access to the institution’s vast collections and advancing scholarship. Earlier this year, the UP Museums launched Artology, the first Google Pocket Gallery in South Africa allowing viewers to “look around” and browse select works from the institutional art collection.

GAC has also provided the scope for the UP Museums to generate QR codes to improve the visitor experience with instant access to detailed information and deeper data into the history, context, significance of the works and even a short artist biography. The UP Museums are experimenting with QR codes to provide a valuable fourth dimension to museums as an approach to interpretation, to deliver different perspectives on the collections and multi-sensory displays and have the potential to be used to activate digital guides and audio for museum exhibitions in the future. These little black and white squares have become a valuable museum marketing and communication tool that is affordable and practical.

The GAC platform has improved access to collections and to exhibit objects digitally, in the absence of new or adequate gallery space at the university which has constrained resources and inadequate funding to improve our current museum galleries. This allows the UP Museums the ability to display much more than can possibly fit onto a gallery wall, and access collections that may have expensive art conservation needs and use items from storage. The online story exhibits can be viewed for much longer periods of time, which is usually only in a gallery for 3 months. In the absence of better quality brick and mortar, the UP Museums have creatively transitioned to GAC as part of our core mission for improving access, inclusivity, diversity and as a means of global engagement- the good hallmarks of any university museum.

The GAC of the UP Museums is now also an extension of the University of Pretoria’s Digital Transformation Strategy. With available hypertext links, searchable metadata uploads and the ability for the museums to upload supplementary information, archival documentation online has the option for GAC to be used as a research tool, ideal for information searches and the browser to come across valuable information and opens up global research collaboration potentials. The UP Museums will continue as small university museums to pursue the offerings of Google Arts & Culture as a means of ‘museums without walls’ and will work hard to share more objects, items, artworks, archives, knowledge and story exhibitions with the global public and to expand scholarship.

Keep a look out for the new online exhibition to be launched before the end of the year, titled, Art of the Archive: Monochromatic Portraiture which will debut at the Mapungubwe Archive and UP Museum Archive. To view the current 1052 items from the University of Pretoria please see: https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/university-of-pretoria-museums

- Author Dr. Sian Tiley-Nel

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