Embassies around the world have long promoted their country’s art, music and natural attractions through museums, concerts, festivals and tourism exhibitions.
But now, thanks to the “metaverse,” cultural diplomacy is no longer constrained to the physical world. That’s according to a panel of experts which convened for a March 3 webinar titled “Crafting the Future of Cultural Diplomacy in the Digital Age.”
The event, co-sponsored by the Italian Embassy and Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, was moderated by Ilaria Poggiolini, chair professor of international history at the University of Pavia. It focused on “to what extent the metaverse is likely to disrupt cultural diplomacy, and if so, how exactly,” according to Corneliu Bjola, an associate professor of diplomatic studies at England’s Oxford University.
Bjola cited a recent surge of public interest in the metaverse, especially since October 2021, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg branded his popular website as a metaverse company.
“At the same time, we have to be careful not to exaggerate the potential impact—but also not to underestimate its significance for cultural diplomacy,” he said. “I think there are opportunities for the metaverse to change cultural diplomacy. Its strongest potential is in storytelling, at the level of interaction between audiences and those creators and disseminators of culture.”
But what exactly is the metaverse, other than being the latest buzzword in an industry filled with hype and technical jargon?
As Bjola said, “it represents a network of 3D virtual worlds. The metaverse is an expansion of physical reality. With that in mind, embassies and cultural institutes that engage in cultural diplomacy can create an environment in which foreign audiences may connect with artifacts and other resources embassies make available to them.”
Virtual reality helps bring history to life
He added: “You already have festivals, art galleries and performances, but in general terms, this culture is presented to the audience. It’s not experienced or lived. You interact, but in a very passive way. The metaverse can change the audience from being a passive spectator to becoming more engaged so that you actually live the culture.”
For example, he said, instead of just gazing at Johannes Vermeer’s famous 1657 oil painting “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window,” you actually hear the street noise as it may have sounded 300 years ago as she reads the letter. Or instead of just visiting the Anne Frank House, you can actually touch her diary and listen to the BBC on the radio, just as the teenage girl did 80 years ago while Nazis closed in on her Amsterdam hideout.
“Or you can experience Rome during the time of Caesar, or the Great London Fire of 1666, or the cruelty of colonialism,” Bjola added. “The sky’s the limit.”
In fact, the first attempt at such an “immersion experience” took place 65 years ago, long before anybody had heard of the metaverse, Facebook, the internet, fax machines or even satellite TV.
In 1958, Brussels—future headquarters of the European Union—hosted the Universal and International Trade Fair, also known as Expo 58. Although the only thing that remains of that singular event today is the city’s famous Atomium, the fair boasted the first multimedia installation in history at its famous Phillips pavilion.
Franco Bevione, the CEO of a company called Wedoo, said his team has managed to reconstruct a virtual 3D model of the original hyperbolic asbestos-and-concrete Philips pavilion. Wedoo has also gathered together online a collection of historical documents from multiple sources including the Getty Center, the Le Corbusier Foundation and the Philips Museum.
In addition, Bevoine’s company has developed a virtual reality application with binaural sound “to create an immersive experience for bringing back to life the show as it was” in 1958.
Italians lead the way
A great example of how an actual diplomat has harnessed the online power of cultural diplomacy is Allegra Baistrocchi, Italy’s Detroit-based consul for the states of Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
“Our task is providing consular services but also promoting the Italian language as well as culture and commerce,” she said. “I arrived in Detroit in September 2021 and found a vibrant city with not only 20,000 Italians but also 2.5 million Americans of Italian descent in my region who are incredibly proud of their roots.”
To bring that culture to a wider audience, the consulate launched LoveITDetroit, capitalizing on the fact that Detroit is the nation’s only UNESCO-designated “city of design.”
“We’re the first public entity to have a metaverse,” Baistrocchi said. “I wanted to have maximum inclusivity, with no barriers.”
In addition to a physical exhibit at a downtown location featuring 60 Italian brands and 100 products, there was an online version for the entire month of September. More than 10,000 people visited the site, with over 60,000 single reel views on social media, 70+ articles in the local and international media and four TV news shows. The idea was so successful that Baistrocchi plans to do it again this year, with sustainability being the underlying theme for 2023.
In much the same vein, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger on March 9 opened the doors of The Hunger Museum, an unprecedented exploration into the social and political history of hunger and food insecurity—how the United States almost ended hunger, and how we can work together to do it again.
The museum is now open at hungermuseum.org, is freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection, The Hunger Museum utilizes groundbreaking technology to deliver a powerfully heightened virtual experience in an ultra-modern museum space designed by architects and curated by historians.
Nearly three years in the making, MAZON’s Hunger Museum is symbolically located in the shadow of the Washington Monument between the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the US Department of Agriculture. Click here to watch a short video about the museum.