As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ricochet around the world, closing cities and slamming entire sectors of the economy, museums are turning to live streaming in an effort reach the public and avoid catastrophic losses.

China’s third-largest ecommerce player Pinduoduo said it is working with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and six other Chinese museums on live streaming exhibits, developing virtual tours and promoting gift shop merchandise to consumers in China.

“This is the first time we have world-class museums like the Met Museum going for live streaming on an ecommerce platform,” said Pinduoduo’s spokeswoman, adding that the Met shop was opened in March. “Live streaming and ecommerce allows consumers to explore the museums during the pandemic lockdown, and could save the museums from a financial hit.”

People are seen at their desks at the headquarters of Chinese online group discounter Pinduoduo in Shanghai on July 25, 2018. (Picture: Reuters)

Users can find the museum live streams by entering their online stores on Pinduoduo’s app, where museum staff hold a camera to show viewers around different display areas with a guide to different collections. There is also an in-app option to buy gift shop merchandise. Viewers can comment on the live stream and interact with staff.

The move online by museums comes as the coronavirus pandemic poses a growing threat to the global economy. China’s economy declined sharply in the first two months of the year under the weight of lockdowns and social isolation measures, with industrial production, retail sales and asset investment all declining far more than analysts expected. The US is now experiencing similar economic pain as the pandemic spreads there.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is projecting close to a US$100 million total loss and potential lay-offs after it closed its doors temporarily on March 12, according to a letter the museum sent to its department heads last week. The museum, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, is expected to remain closed until July.

In China, although the pandemic has eased with some cities lifting lockdowns, it is expected to take time for museums to recover pre-coronavirus visitor levels.

“We are still feeling the hit,” said a spokeswoman at the Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King in Guangzhou, which resumed operations on February 19 after a one-month shutdown.

The museum used to have 5,000 visitors a day in peak season, but now only a maximum of 50 are allowed to enter per hour due to safety reasons. The local government has also cut subsidies to public museums amid the pandemic, adding to pressure on ticket sales, said the spokeswoman.

On January 28, China’s National Administration of Cultural Heritage issued a statement requesting the country’s state-owned and private museums to share their exhibitions online to the public to “encourage the determination and morale of local people to fight the epidemic.”

Beijing’s Palace Museum, the Shanghai Museum, and others have responded to the call with 3D virtual tours.

“Users can see the history and behind-the-scenes stories of the museums while browsing relevant products,” said the Pinduoduo spokeswoman. “It brings users closer to sellers, builds trust and provides a different experience for them.”

Pinduoduo has become China’s fastest-growing ecommerce platform but remains a relative newcomer to the country’s live streaming shopping boom. PDD launched its live streaming feature last December, allowing its 536 million users to shop for goods while watching live streamed videos of vendors promoting them.

Pinduoduo’s bigger ecommerce rivals, Alibaba’s Taobao and JD.com, launched live streaming features as early as 2016. Taobao Live, Alibaba’s live streaming platform, saw live stream sessions on the platform increase by 110% in February compared to the same period last year, and the number of vendors opening live stream sessions increased more than seven times month-on-month.

Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post.)