And… Action! Museums on YouTube

youtube museo

Raise your hand if  the association “video & museum” instantly makes you think of long and boring documentaries! It has certainly happened  to every museum-goer, once in a lifetime, to end up sitting in a dark room filled with plastic chairs – sometimes slightly embellished by red cushions,  but almost always empty – to watch a documentary on a specific topic or on the museum in general. A blessed break for aching backs, after hours spent standing in front of the cases, people use these spaces to relax and, while they are there – why not – watch the documentary.

Stereotypes set aside, the two words “video” and “museum” can be declined – nowadays – in many different ways, starting with the countless possibilities of the web.

Let’s thus see what are the options offered by the most popular online video-platform : YouTube. Taking as examples some of the institutions that #svegliamuseo has already been targeting, what stands out straightaway is that ALL of them own a branded channel full of videos organized by playlists.

1 – Trailer

Let me stress first how the configuration of the YouTube platform strongly influences the way a museum can present itself to its public.  The current interface for homepages, in fact, is structured in a way that allows you to see only a customized cover and a trailer when you first access a branded channel. The purpose of the trailer is therefore that of informing the user of the content of a channel, encouraging subscriptions.  This done, at the following access the homepage changes: the trailer is now replaced by a different video labeled “What to watch next”, flanked on the right by “Recent activity” and “You recently watched” (that would be, the trailer itself). The customized cover stays on.

All this to say how important it is to introduce oneself with an engaging short trailer, one that would be capable of inducing the user to subscribe and, even more importantly, to get involved in the museum activities. Having this trailer ready is essential even when the YouTube channel is not the platform on which people start to watch a video, having been redirected there, i.e.,  from a social network or a search engine.

It is precisely through a social network that I came across the trailer of the Rijksmuseum for the first time. The trailer is now to be found under the playlist “Welcome” – it was, though, the official trailer during the promotion campaign for the reopening of the Dutch museum in April 2013. After watching the trailer, I moved on to the other videos featured in the channel.


2 –  Playlists

Let’s analyze now what use could be done of playlists. First thing to be noticed is that playlists on museum channels are usually organized by genre and not by topic.  That is, there generally is not any customized playlist devoted to a single exhibition; instead, you could find a variety of videos spread under the labels “promo”, “interviews”, “shows”, “events”  – these may include, consequently, contents from many, unrelated, exhibitions.

Then why is the celebrated British Museum presenting playlists divided by exhibition? This kind of approach, not uncommon after all, might be influenced by the type of museum at issue (archaeological, of natural history, of contemporary art etc.), or by the way the museum structure is organized. The British Museum, i.e., tends to focus on exhibitions as one of its main attractions – the use of very creative, exhibition-related videos goes accordingly.

Hence, museums are free to operate different choices. Some of them might decide to offer pre-recorded broadcasts, as it happens: videos regarding activities taking place at the museum, even behind closed doors (conferences, opening events, installations of works of art and  (mostly musical) performances – both examples are from the Getty).

3 – Series 

Certain playlists require a continuous, and, in a way, more creative, work – it is the case of those playlists made in series and serving the aim of online promotion. They range from the presentation of works of art (Inside the collection) and targeted interviews (Meet the Scientists – both examples are from the American Museum of Natural History), to curators talking about their exhibitions (here at the Tate Modern), experimental activities, as well as tutorials or 3D reconstructions & virtual tours.

No shortage of examples here, but the latest series by the Metropolitan Museum of Art deserves, in my opinion, a special mention as one of the most successful. The Met has “invited 100 curators from across the Museum to talk about 100 works of art that changed the way they see the world”. Each YouTube video is accompanied by a link to a slideshow of images, at times supplemented with a written description, of the object protagonist of the video. The series is emblematically called “82nd & Fifth”, the Met’s well known address in New York City.

In the episode below, Sarah Graff, Assistant Curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art, describes two brick lions from the Processional Way of Babylon.

Playlists must be constantly updated with new contents , and, it goes without saying, there is always a first. The playlist system works well in the way that it allows the user to trace back quickly any video he/she might be looking for, while providing a hands-on list of videos on a topic of interest. It would be much more complex to do the same from the general “Video”  listing, as this includes any content featured in the channel.

4 – Interaction

Last but not least, I would like to give here two examples of the potential of video-making as a valuable tool of interaction with the museum audiences.

For the shooting of this video, a camera has been made available at MOCA to the museum visitors in order to collect their ideas on the meaning of (contemporary) art. The museum-goer is the real protagonist here.


And here is the brilliant video shot by ING Nederland on the occasion of the reopening of the Rijksmuseum. The protagonists are the oblivious customers of a shopping center, randomly surrounded, by surprise, by 17th century characters.

To conclude, I might have to excuse myself for exceeding the acceptable number of links for a single blog-post. I wanted, however,  to make sure I was conveying all the potential of video-making for online communication. As we have seen, there is a wide variety of options,  but let’s not forget that our aim should always be that of making a good production, quality-wise. And not only in terms of video resolution and other technical issues, as much as in the quality of original thinking  and creativity. The making of such videos requires time, a lot of time to be divided among shooting, editing and post-production. In the given examples, this time was well spent, enabling the museums to reach a wide audience and to elicit a positive response through comments and shares.

High quality videos are not lacking in Italy either (see here), what is missing in the museums of our country is a well-planned strategy that uses said videos in an effective way. Once again, then, #svegliamuseo! Wake up!

Francesco Ripanti @Cioschi


Francesco Ripanti is a 27 years old archaeologist with a passion for story-telling.

Video-making is, in his opinion, one of the most engaging medium for archaeologists, as it gives them the perfect tool to tell short stories in a narrative frame. Over the past few years, he has been experimenting the genre of docudrama on the channel Vignale.

Francesco manages the blog for the Marche National Archaeological Museum, and has his own creation at ArcheoVideo.

Here is the link to a playlist he made for us with his favorite museum videos. #svegliamuseo!

Translated by @RoryinLA