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Our choices in online content have never been more diverse and accessible, and as consumers continue to seek out entertainment from the comfort of their homes during COVID, cultural institutions are finding new ways to bridge the gap between their collections and a locked-down populace.

In the U.K., the Birmingham Museums Trust has taken a bold approach to the issue at hand. For a monthly fee of £20 ($28), interested patrons can experience Birmingham Museums on Demand, a wealth of digitally minded paywall programming produced specifically for an at-home audience. Four exclusive talks and lecture will be published on the subscription service every month, allowing viewers to experience different parts of the collection from anywhere, at any time.

It comes as no surprise that the Birmingham Museum Trust has adopted digital innovation as part of its platform. Back in November, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG) became the first official museum partner of online curatorial game Occupy White Walls, and was one of the first institutions to open up its collections to the public online at the beginning of the country’s first lockdown.

Between the availability of 3D virtual museum tours and a wealth of dedicated video programming for school kids to try at home, the Birmingham Museums Trust has prevailed in institutional outreach in the virtual sector. The Trust, an independent charity that manages the city’s museum collection and venues on behalf of Birmingham City Council, boasts a robust archive of 1 million objects, while BMAG itself is home to the finest public collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world.

Birmingham Museums on Demand

The subscription service brings to the fore Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s trove of Pre-Raphaelite art. Image: Birmingham Museums Trust

This broad range of stories makes the Birmingham Museums on Demand initiative an exciting resource for audience discovery. “When many people are still isolated at home and our museums remain closed, Birmingham Museums on Demand is a way of making people feel more connected to Birmingham’s rich and vibrant collections and historic properties,” says Alex Nicholson-Evans, Commercial Director at Birmingham Museums Trust. All proceeds go towards supporting the trust, which in turn helps conservation efforts in all of its properties. 

The project started this month with “Love, Betrayal, Poison and Death — Part One,” a lecture detailing the history of affect in art, and “The Bredon Hills Coin Hoard,” which unearths the legacy of 3,000 silver coins that were discovered near an Iron Age hill fort. Two additional talks offer an in-depth examination of a Ford Madox Brown painting and an overview of the Ice House at Aston Hall, an important Jacobean jewel. 

The JCC Angle

The Birmingham Museums on Demand initiative represents a sea-change in COVID-era audience interface. Cultural organizations, faced with dwindling ticket sales and limited financial resources, have started to take notes from paywall-based practices of sites like Patreon or the Paris Review, as well as the subscription models of streamers such as Netflix and Spotify.

While a range of museums have leaned into different forms of digital tourism — like the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo’s virtual gallery platform, or the Frick Collection’s Friday evening Cocktails with a Curator YouTube series — the Birmingham Museum Trust’s subscription service combines the approach of a donation call-to-action with the intellectual push of a symposium, allowing viewers an unprecedented intimacy with the museum’s archival content. It remains to be seen how lucrative or sustainable this move will prove post-lockdown, but the opportunity for high-impact audience engagement can’t be denied. 

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