The first thing most people look for when visiting a museum is a special exhibition — or else the nearest bathroom. But for the Chinese cultural livestreamer Huangdu Feixue (黄杜飞雪), it’s the thickness of the walls or the corresponding wifi strength that she hones in on. “[Western] museums are old and the walls are thick which makes it challenging to livestream,” says Huangdu, whose ongoing mission is to beam British museums directly into the phones of hundreds of thousands of followers back home. “If you don’t prepare and work it all out beforehand, the stream will freeze and you will lose viewers.”
Today’s Chinese livestreaming craze is typically associated with influencers peddling new fashion accessories, but Huangdu, a graduate of Nottingham Trent University’s Museum and Heritage Development program, is showing that there’s another possibility for the medium: a dynamic and potentially lucrative link between a new generation of culturally engaged Chinese consumers and the global cultural institutions and sites that fascinate them.
Huangdu first drew media attention when her livestream of Ruddington Village Museum — a quaint establishment in the English countryside that showcases social history through household objects— was watched by over 400,000 Chinese. The East China native has continued honing her unique craft by visiting small museums, regional scenic spots, and even a cricket ground, and her efforts have become so popular, that she was eventually recognized with a special award at the U.K.’s 2019 Regional Heritage Conference.
Connecting with Chinese audiences on China’s social media mainstays WeChat and Weibo is still pivotal for Western museums and cultural institutions, but they should also consider livestreaming on Chinese video platforms like Lanjing, Douyu, and Douyin (known internationally as TikTok) as an authentic way to develop an identity in China.
As Huangdu continues her livestreams, she has joined with JGOO, a company connecting European brands to Chinese customers through Alipay and WeChat Pay, a move that takes her broadcasts into the realm of e-commerce within museums.
Here are some best practice tips for institutions hoping to tap into the trend of cultural livestreaming:
Huangdu’s smoothly paced and informative livestreams may seem effortless, but they are the product of thorough preparation, and she has to consider everything from room lighting and museum flow to ambient noise. “I go to the museum at least three times,” she tells Jing Daily. “First, I meet with curators to discuss which objects to choose, then we decide the route and how to move from one place to the next. I am the eyes and ears and mouth of the audience and so I want to understand [the museum space] in detail.”
For distribution, Huangdu uses the open-source software OBS, which allows her to livestream on several platforms simultaneously. OBS also allows users to upload subtitles, images, and video content, all of which Huangdu uses to provide ancillary information. While Huangdu’s livestreams can run an hour and a half in length, she says that, at first, shorter test runs are advisable. “I am always trying to improve the quality of my livestreams, and I sometimes test on Douyin to see how the audience responds.”
For museums, one advantage of livestreaming versus more traditional modes of communication lies in the ability to react to the wants and requests of viewers in real-time. While Chinese cultural engagement is developing rapidly on a broad basis (thanks to an ever-growing museum attendance from Chinese traveler abroad), cultural artifacts connected to China still command the most interest, and livestreams should reflect this.
“First, choose interesting items. Choose objects that help Chinese viewers engage with [your museum],” Huangdu suggests. “For example, I went to Doddington Hall and chose an item of porcelain that was bought from China hundreds of years ago.”
Global museums are already tapping into China’s penchant for cultural museum products (known as wenchuang) by launching products on the Chinese e-commerce platforms Tmall and Taobao. In 2018, the British Museum made $51 million through licensed product sales in China, a success story that has encouraged The Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to follow in their footsteps.
Cultural livestreaming should become a natural extension of a museum’s e-commerce strategy given its ability to showcase both gift shop products and the QR codes that allow viewers to buy said products. “When I do a livestream, I can show a WeChat QR code [or Alipay QR code], and if the viewers want to buy a product related to the museum, they can just scan and the museum can ship it directly to China.”
Huangdu hopes her growing livestreaming savvy along with her connections to U.K. museums will allow her reach a truly global audience when she returns to China and begins livestreaming about Chinese cultural institutions. “I want to broadcast around the world,” she says, “there are 5,000 museums in China and I can livestream from China to many other countries around the world. It’s a long way away but it can be done.”