Ruddington Village Museum is the embodiment of a quaint English institution. Located in a rural Nottinghamshire village, the small museum has received 75,000 visitors in its 50-year history, but when Chinese livestreamer Huangdu Feixue (黄杜飞雪) toured the converted Victorian schoolhouse, she brought the eyes and ears of 434,000 compatriots with her.
Connecting with a generation of culture hungry Chinese tourists is an increasing priority for Western museums and cultural institutions, and while a handful of illustrious — read deep pocketed — museums can announce their commitment to the world’s leading outbound travel market through Mandarin-language mobile apps and tailored consumer products, the pathway for smaller institutions is less clear. Huangdu’s example offers a fruitful and affordable possibility.
“Small museums have their own charm,” says the Nottingham Trent University graduate student. “Their objects are evidence of local people who lived 100, 200 years ago. This is a type of original British culture and through my livestreams I try to prove that these objects in small museums are valuable.”
Huangdu’s decision to collaborate with regional museums came through a process of trial and error. After moving the U.K., the Anhui province native began with tours of London’s V&A and British Museum, but these proved unpopular for many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese that regularly tune in to her broadcasts on Douyu and Lanjing FM. “When I visited these large museums, I prepared as well as I could, but in the end my livestream audience didn’t like the experience. Why? The lighting was not good, and the glass cases protect the objects, but on camera, the audience are unable to see the objects clearly.”
Add to the equation hordes of noisy tourists — the British museum welcomes more than 18,000 visitors daily — and the appeal of an intimate visit to a small museum is clear. What’s more, Huangdu deliberately selects content to pique the interest of her Chinese audience and uses an accompanying museum curator to offer her viewers insight and expertise. “I want to design content that is special for Chinese audiences, so I cooperate with curators and find things related to China. I am the eyes and ears and mouth of my audience and I ask the questions for them.”
Though Huangdu uses the same platforms as her livestreaming peers, her decision to promote cultural artefacts found in museums, as opposed to consumable goods, is uncommon — all the more so since these objects are often quite alien to her viewers who watch from thousands of miles away. “Chinese livestreaming is always about games, dancing, singing, entertainment,” says Huangdu. “It is rarely about heritage. I want to be the one who gives a professional interpretation of museum objects to an audience. This is my major and I like giving the backstory of objects and their museums. That’s why I started.”
Though it may seem strange for museums to lean on a highly personal and often amateurish form of social media, in China, livestreaming is as ubiquitous as it is lucrative. In 2018, an estimated 456 million Chinese used one of the country’s many such media platforms generating $4.4 billion in the process. From sharing cooking hacks to promoting the newest lipstick hues, livestreaming straddles the realms of reality television and advertising and in so doing offers viewers information in an interactive — and generally more authentic — format.
For Huangdu the practice is more than a pastime, she has incorporated cultural livestreaming into her graduate degree thesis in Museum and Heritage Development. As a consequence, she regularly reassesses how to broadcast museum content in an interesting way. The key, by Huangdu’s telling, is to carefully plan an itinerary, make the museum an active experience, and remain in conversation with viewers.
“Before a livestream, I visit the museum at least three times,” Huangdu says, explaining the planning behind her Trent Bridge cricket ground livestream. “First, we meet with the curators and discuss the objects that are suitable for a Chinese audience. The duration of the livestream is about an hour and a half, so we have to design the route.” Direct interaction helps keep Huangdu’s audience interested, and her tour of the cricket ground included a demonstration of how to play the sport with the help of a professional cricket coach. Once inside the museum, her up-and-close style continued, “We have a special access to the museum objects. It’s not just pointing things out; I can pick objects up and show the details to the audience. I think that is why my livestreaming is so popular.”
In broader terms, the traction gained by the graduate student can be seen as part of the exploding domestic interest in museums and cultural institutions. In terms of attendance, Chinese museums occupy 12 of the top 20 Asian museums, with institutions such as Suzhou Museum and Zhejiang Museum experiencing 17 and 11 percent year-to-year growth, respectively. Furthermore, such trends are affecting the desires of Chinese when traveling overseas. Tourists are spending less on shopping and more on cultural sectors, and the overall motivation of increasingly sophisticated Chinese travellers is to take in more art, culture, and local experiences, 61 percent according to a 2018 McKinsey study. For smaller western museums, a highly lucrative opportunity exists, provided they can reach into this vast pool of travellers in advance.
In Huangdu’s opinion the cultural appetites of China’s growing middle-class is increasingly outward facing, “as Chinese people have more money, they want to satisfy their spiritual needs and culture is the root of Chinese people, we benefit from it. It is also a type of exchange. Interactions with other countries are not just about trade, not just a way to buy and sell things from America, Japan, and the U.K. Chinese people want to go abroad to see the world and experience a different life in different countries.”
With this increasingly expansive worldview in mind, Huangdu hopes to harness her relationships with U.K. museums and bring Chinese high schoolers to the country for cultural exchange. “I want to organize heritage and culture tours for teenagers,” she says. “Museums in the UK often cooperate with schools to hold projects that can change the skills and opinions of teenagers. This is the reason Chinese teenagers should go abroad — to learn from this.”