Phygital…What Is That?

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by Sandro Debono PhD, Museology, Art History and Curatorial Practice

Let’s go straight to the point. Linguistically, the word phygital is a combination of the words “physical” and “digital” to signify the ever-growing experiential cross-referencing and amalgamation of these two worlds. In other words, the term refers to the ways and means how these two realms — physical and digital — have melted into each other and hence increasingly difficult to inhabit them separately. The term is not new. It has been coined way back in 2013 by Momentum, an Australian branding and marketing company, but has gained traction in recent times particularly in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic.

So far so good. Phygital would refer to the dialectic, interface, overlap, and contamination between physical and digital. But how would the two combine? To what extent, in what form, and what type of interface would be the case for the phygital museum experience? Would the physical be the dominant element albeit having a comfortable overlap with digital? Or would the phygital be primarily digital with a physical overlap?

I would like to propose five possible scenarios that might inform our reply to these legitimate questions. These are not to be read and understood as siloed categories but more akin to bearings or what we might perhaps define as the phygital museum scale against which to measure phygital museum experiences. Indeed, five phygital scenarios that can serve the purpose of compass bearings towards which museums can navigate or to use as a yardstick to understand better where they stand. 

Scenario 1

Physical with a token of digital

This scenario refers to a physical museum space with a digital presence. Museums that classify within this scenario are usually small to medium-sized museums with a ‘token’ online presence providing general information that serves the purpose of promoting the experience within the physical museum space. Museums with superficial digital campaigns, token websites and interpretative content that is one and the same as that available in the physical space irrespective of whether it is used for the physical or the digital can be associated with this scenario.

Scenario 2

Physical with digital as an extension

This scenario would refer to a physical museum experience extended into the digital whereby the character and content of each are practically one and the same. A good example of this category would refer to museums with virtual tours that are, to all intents and purposes, an extension of the physical experience. With virtual tours the physical visit is replicated warts and all into the digital. It is but an online twin of the physical experience but relatively restrained by comparison given its reliance on camera viewpoints.

Scenario 3

Digital as a pointer to the physical

This scenario would refer to the digital as a pointer to the physical museum experience. In this case, the character of the digital content is different from but also complementary to the museum’s physical experience. This scenario shows the digital complementing the physicality of the museum experience, serving to subtly promote content within the museum’s physical space. A good example of this scenario is the Getty Museum Challenge, now also a publication that invited the museum public at home to engage with content that is located within the physical museum space.

Scenario 4

Parallel and cross-referenced existence of physical and digital 

This scenario refers to the equilibrium between digital and physical with each experience being potentially autonomous albeit complementary to each other. Transmedia thinking, to which museums are increasingly becoming attracted to, would fall squarely within this scenario. The museum experiences that can be classified within this scenario would be those dispersed over multiple platforms, which can also be experienced individually or collectively as one overarching cross-media experience. The multi-platform museum idea is currently being explored by the Australian Centre of the Moving Image but there aren’t many more museums to cite that are seriously considering this phygital experience. 

Scenario 5

Digital with a token of Physical 

This scenario refers to a fully-fledged digital experience with a token physical presence that would concern material culture or a museum display, but which could be taken to extremes so as to refer to the physical location of the hardware. This predominantly digital scenario, which still concerns only a very small number of museums, is the one that has come out largely unscathed by the Covid-19 debacle. One of the very few museums that would fall within this category would be The Museum of Portable Sound, which is also a fully accredited ICOM member. 

These five scenarios would come with a list of caveats of which I choose to list three. 

First, there is no ideal scenario to consider. 

The phygital museum scale merely serves the purpose of helping museums understand much more the scope and purpose of the digital in relation to the physical. There may well be circumstances where the digital is not necessary or possible at all given technical problems such as low internet coverage. It may also be the case that museums willingly hop from one scenario to the other as digital literacy keeps increasing consistently. 

Secondly, the ideal mix between digital and physical remains subjectively pertinent to the specific museum and shall depend upon the specific context within which a given museum relates to. There is a potentially strong bond between museums and publics that is entirely within the remit of the museum to define and sustain. Relevance also concerns understanding the phygital as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. 

Third, it may well be the case that some museums will favour an approach at the intersection between two scenarios, acknowledging the objectives of one whilst straddling those of the other. It may also be the case that some of the experiences that fall within one scenario might also be repurposed or reused for another. 

Last but not least, let’s not forget that every time we look up google maps to find our way, check restaurant reviews online before deciding where to have dinner with friends and colleagues or share our thoughts or reactions on social media we are interacting between digital and physical. Indeed, we are already phygital. 

From the blog publication The Humanist Museum (Medium.com) 

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