We may be living through times of unprecedented change, but in uncertainty lies the power to influence the future of storytelling.
Now is not the time to despair, but to act and interact!
Please introduce yourself and tell us briefly about what you and your company does.
My name is Aurélie Clemente-Ruiz and I’m the head of the exhibitions department at the Institut du Monde Arabe, or the Arab World Institute (AWI), in Paris. As such, I’m in charge of curating the whole exhibition programme, which includes both physical and digital exhibitions. The AWI is a cultural institution dedicated to building strong, long-lasting relationships between cultures so as to develop a dialogue between the Arab world, France and Europe. In 2019, 750,000 people visited the institute which was inaugurated in 1987.
Cultural operators and museums are currently facing a period of uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has had an impact on industries all across the world. What impact has it had on your digital strategy?
Obviously, our whole programme has been postponed sine die, especially since a lot of what we do has an international aspect. It is hard to anticipate the following months to come because transport restrictions will determine whether or not international artists and experts can come here.
On the digital side of things, as soon as the lockdown was put in place, the Arab World Institute decided to “go virtual” by setting up #LImaALaMaison (or #AwiAtHome), which is part of the Culture chez nous (Culture At Home) initiative from the French Ministry of Culture. This special programme is available via our website and social media. It basically features existing online content and content that was created especially for the occasion. This includes concerts and dance or musical performances that have been recorded, conferences, workshops…. On top of this video and/or audio content, we’ve also included exhibition guided tours, such as the one on the Mecca pilgrimage to coincide with the start of Ramadan. It seemed only natural to offer this to our visitors under the current circumstances.
What avenues are you exploring to maintain digital production as much as possible during these unprecedented times?
We have mobilised our entire community to digitally transform events that originally should have taken place at the AWI and transform them into online content, as well as creating content directly related to the situation. We have teamed up with Sciences Po Menton to broadcast an exclusive live conference with Gilles Kepel, called “Covid-19 and oil: emerging from the crisis in the Mediterranean and the Middle East“. What’s more, the vast majority of artists, dancers and musicians who were scheduled to perform at the Institute, especially as part of the Printemps de la Danse festival, have agreed to perform a show from their homes. This meant we were able to offer exclusive concerts and shows while maintaining and creating visitor loyalty.
What’s more, each week the AWI hosts the Arabic Sound System show at night, with online DJ sets!
In what ways has your international strategy for promoting your collections, heritage sites and digital installations evolved in light of the current situation?
Apart from the immersive experiences, we offer as part of certain exhibitions, I think this crisis has enabled us to reach new audiences via the digital content I outlined earlier. This prompted us to think about how to produce different yet complementary content than what the AWI can offer in situ.
We are currently working with ICONEM to create a virtual tour of the Great Mosque of Damascus, which is one of the oldest mosques in the world. You can take the virtual tour from the comfort of your own home, and it’s something that we might not have necessarily created without this health crisis and its ensuing imposed measures.
But more broadly speaking, we’re going to approach our exhibition projects differently by integrating a digital aspect in a more spontaneous way.
The Covid-19 crisis also has an obvious consequence on the use of (audio or VR) headsets. How have you responded to such restrictions?
We’re obviously asking ourselves this question – in fact, we’re probably not the only ones to do so. We know that we currently need tools such as headsets to access digital. As it is, everything is called into question. Alongside our production designers, we’re coming up with ways to not loose content we’ve already created, and not devalue the existing experience… all while changing the way we execute things. It’s not easy.
The Arab Divas exhibition, which opens at the beginning of 2021 at the AWI, will certainly be a challenge, as it contains numerous audio-visual items.
What immersive projects have you got lined up for 2020?
With the current situation, I won’t progress with plans for 2020. However, in 2021/2022, it’s clear that we’re going to rely on digital to deal with topics that are important to us, even if we don’t necessarily have enough physical elements to present an exhibition. Some will be temporary; others will be permanent.
I’ll give one example: we’re currently looking into an exhibition dedicated to Yemen’s incredible architectural heritage. The aim will be to offer a hybrid experience that combines both artefacts and a digital experience.
But in the longer term, the question of creating a permanent place for displaying and approaching subjects via immersive technology arises. Let the physical find its digital other half. It’s something to think about in the long run…
CONNECT WITH AURÉLIE CLEMENTE-RUIZ
Join the panel “Models for Operating and Distributing Digital Experiences for Culture” on Thursday 25 June, 11:30am (CET) in the Agora to further exchange.