The Museum in the Age of Digital Participation: ASMR Conservation Videos and the Public 

Oli Beeby

Conservation is usually practiced in the secluded inner sanctum of museums, in brightly lit labs filled with carefully selected tools of the trade. Presenting conservation for the public eye offers a variety of challenges and yet, sharing the conservation process with the public can mobilize that audience to advocate for a collection’s proper care and keeping. From exhibitions focusing on conservatorship to glass-windowed labs, many solutions to making this practice visible to the public have been offered, yet perhaps none quite as unique as the rise of ASMR conservation videos on YouTube. In these videos, various conservators speak softly, explaining the conservation process to the viewer and capturing all the small noises of their process, evoking the ASMR video genre which attempts to give its viewer “tingles” through soothing audio and visuals. The videos produced by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and by private conservators, such as Baumgartner Restoration, engage with the oft-discussed desire to bring the museum into the digital age and take advantage of the affordances of social media platforms like YouTube, such as audience participation through commenting and spreadability through linking content across platforms. Yet, these uses of the YouTube platform beg us to ask: What is the aim of these videos, and further, what should be the goal of public conservation in the age of digital access?

The contemporary museum and its workers continue to reckon with the question of what role the museum should take on in the wake of its history and present as a colonial institution and the mode of closed-off, exclusionary knowledge production it is associated with. In the context of this reckoning, there has been a desire for greater “transparency” in the conservation sector when relating to the public.1 The desire to open conservation practices to the public has come to a crossroads with the ever-growing pressure to bring the museum into the digital age, especially through the use of social media. Social media, and digital media more broadly, have long been associated with the democratization of knowledge and the ability for audiences to “participate” in discourses they might otherwise be excluded from. These qualities are enticing to the museum looking to leave behind its history as a colonial authority of knowledge production—as Jenny Kidd, a scholar of new media and museums, writes, “the desire to unsettle the museum’s position as the ‘knowing archive’ or its hegemonic reign over knowledge storage and production can be located in the messy space of social media.”2 Yet, despite the way digital spaces have continued to be associated with “non-hierarchical” liberation of the viewer into an active participant, we must be critical about the extent to which social media platforms such as YouTube truly give voice to the viewer through their “participatory” affordances.3 We must also ask, if it is not in participation providing agency to the viewer, what power do these videos have power to renegotiate the historical power relationship between museums, their collections, and their audiences. In this essay, I will explore how ASMR collections videos published by the V&A and by Julian Baumgartner can be seen as sites for providing transparency in conservation to the viewer—who we might call the digital museum visitor—and how providing visibility to the conservation process can be understood as more potent than whatever participatory culture YouTube might be thought to generate.

Conservation is an essential part of the museum’s inner workings — from scientific to historical collections, the “stuff” of the museum always requires care and attention. These “ASMR” conservation videos attempt to bring the practice, usually obscured from the public eye, into a new light, now provided by the illumination of a computer screen. As mentioned above, digital technologies, since their conception, have been associated with the production of an active audience or participatory culture—a term coined by eminent media scholar Henry Jenkins and now used ubiquitously in the field of media studies. Yet, the assumption that utilizing social media platforms such as YouTube inherently positions viewers in a more active role in the content they consume, here, in the conservation processes of large museums such as the V&A, is problematic. While social media might “facilitate participation,”4 it cannot be unquestioningly placed in the role of opening up this sect of the museum world; as Kidd puts it, “more democratized communications do not in themselves equate to more, or better, democracy.”5 Darin Barney et al. argue in their influential work, The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age, that participation in our cultural zeitgeist has come to be a form of interpellation, a call that pushes the participant to forget that it is “not at all clear that being allowed to participate amounts to being allowed to appear as one wishes to appear, to have an equal share, to think, to disagree fundamentally, to oppose, to abstain, to dissent, to deliberate, to judge, to decide, to organize, to act, to create something new, or to do any of the other things we might suppose a political being ought to be able to do.”6 When asking whether viewers being permitted to subscribe to and comment on the conservation process renegotiates their relationship with the long-hegemonic institution of the museum, we must be critical and hesitant to claim these videos are doing anything truly revolutionary in allowing the digital museum visitor greater opportunity to participate.

Fig. 2. Still from Baumgartner Restoration video, About Face – Restoring a Torn Portrait, 2023.

If we want to discuss the merits of these new attempts to open museum practices to the public, these video forms of the glass-windowed lab, we must first look at their content. One of the most notable features of these videos is the conservators’ depth of explanation and their acknowledgment of their audiences. For example, in both the videos, “Conserving a Eurovision Dress”7 by the V&A and “The Restoration of Ave Maria”8 by Baumgartner, the conservators explain subjects such as why they are using bare hands rather than using gloves, a topic often commented on by viewers. Notably, these YouTube videos provide this opportunity for conservators to explain themselves, which contrasts with some of the struggles faced by Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss of the American National History Museum’s Star-Spangled Banner project in which conservators could only be observed by the public and not explain themselves in turn.9 She describes having to instruct conservators to wear scrubs during conservation as visitors would be watching through the glass walls of the lab and held a particular idea of what conservation should look like. Here, the medium of YouTube videos, in which a conservator can narrate their process to the viewer, and cuts can be made to show specific techniques, makes sharing with the public more candid and straightforward. In an address to the viewer in the V&A Eurovision Dress video, the conservator carefully breaks down the materials she uses, including insect pins and why they are used to secure beadwork. Similarly, in another V&A video, “Conserving a PJ Harvey Costume,” the conservator explains the proper use of soft arms in the sleeves of historical garments.10 In Baumgartner’s “Ave Maria” video, the creator explains his use of an isolation layer to protect the original painting from his interventions and render them reversible. In all these examples, the conservator not only lets the viewer see the process of conservation but also explains its intricacies and provides insider knowledge. In this aspect, we can locate these videos’ real potential for renegotiating the relationship between digital museum visitors and the institution. To assume that just because viewers can comment, like, or share—because they can “participate”—that they are included in the museum’s work would be problematic; in agreement with what has been said by Barney, Kidd, and others, we cannot assume that digital media’s interactivity equals inclusion or being heard. Instead, I suggest that we must locate the more potentially radical potential of this kind of video in how they give viewers agency through providing the transparency their audience is owed by explaining the techniques of the museum’s inner sanctums: the conservation lab and its collections.

As I have established, much has been said about the flaws of picturing a participatory, open digital sphere that will open the doors of the museum to never-before-seen kinds of public inclusion. But, there has been little attention paid to how mediums such as YouTube provide access and transparency, for the public to conservation practices. As conservator Maria Grammatikou writes, conservation is not “a de facto interesting subject that can aid in redefining a museum whatever the circumstances”;11 exposing the museum’s inner workings to the public does not inherently equal public interest or public inclusion in the institution. Yet, careful interpretation of conservation, placed in context with the object and its story, draws in the visitor, even if only superficially during their time spent in the gallery or watching videos on YouTube. In the Star-Spangled Banner conservation, Thomassen-Krauss notes that the reason for the mass popularity of the exhibit was that the “visiting public wanted personal contact; they wanted to have an intimate experience.”12 Ian Mclure makes a similar observation when writing about exhibits put on by Cambridge and Yale University centered on the conservation process and the many uncertainties and instances of trial and error in its history and present. Mclure notes that visitors wanted these exhibitions to become permanent, significant considering many of the objects on display needed preservation work to remain stable in their current state, and yet it was this liminal, “opened up” state of objects under conservation that drew in the public.13 One vital way transparency and accountability to the public can be achieved is through providing informed access to our collections and how our institutions intend to care for them through conservation. We must locate the success of these YouTube ASMR videos in this context of didactic access and visibility, not in the ongoing debates about the participatory condition of social media.

YouTube allows conservators to share their work directly with an audience, a digital museum visitor, who can access it anywhere.14 Kidd, in discussing transmedia experiences like these videos, describes how the transmission of narratives from inside the museum to the external public “implicate the audience in their telling—challenging them, acknowledging and problematising their agency.”15 While we must remain cautious of overstating the power of any media to change the long history of the museum’s role as a hegemonic, exclusionary, and colonial institution of knowledge production, these videos, which present conservation in an intimate manner that acknowledges its past failures and its ongoing uncertainties, have the potential to renegotiate the museum/visitor relationship and produce a new audience agency, amplified through, rather than produced by, mediums such as YouTube. It is also of note that these videos provide the viewer choice in how they engage with the museum’s collection—they are given the experience of looking at the object in a new way and engaging with it on their own time, in their own space. While staring at an object through a museum case, or even the glass windows of a see-through lab, determine a specific, externalized position for the viewer — always looking onto something but never experiencing it intimately — the visibility of the medium of YouTube offers a new kind of interaction in which the relationship between viewer and subject can still be negotiated and remains vitally unstable.16

While these ASMR YouTube videos might at first glance come off as just a fun gimmick, I believe they represent a unique recognition of what sorts of new media interventions might hold real potential for opening up the museum and offering greater agency to the public/the viewer. Instead of assuming what inherent democratizing participatory qualities a medium such as YouTube a museum can take advantage of, we must instead ask how we might use these platforms’ affordances in the ongoing process of sharing a more transparent and ultimately more participatory experience of conservation with the public.

This academic essay is licensed under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0.


[1] Maria Grammatikou, “Conservation and the Museum’s New Role,” in The Public Face of Conservation, ed. Emily Williams (London: Archetype Publications, 2013), 47.

[2] Jenny Kidd, “Museum Communications in Social Networks,” in Museums in the New Mediascape (London: Routledge, 2014), 41. 

[3] Darin Barney et al., The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age (Minneapolis, Minnesotta: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 24. 

[4] Barney et al., The Participatory Condition, 22.

[5 ] Kidd, “Museum Communications,” 45. 

[6] Barney et al. The Participatory Condition, 31. 

[7] ASMR at the Museum | Conserving a Eurovision Dress | V&A, YouTube, 2021, =20s.

[8] The Restoration of Ave Maria Narrated Version, YouTube, 2019,

[9] Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss , “Conservation in the Public Eye: Musings from the Other Side of the Glass,” in The Public Face of Conservation, ed. Emily Williams (London: Archetype Publications, 2013), 147.

[10] ASMR at the Museum | Conserving a PJ Harvey Costume | V&A, YouTube, 2021,

[11] Grammatikou, “Conservation and the Museum,” 47.

[12] Thomassen-Krauss, “Conservation in the Public Eye,” 145. 

[13] Ian Mclure, “Making Exhibitions of Ourselves,” in The Public Face of Conservation, ed. Emily Williams (London: Archetype Publications, 2013), 169. 

[14] While it fell outside the scope of this essay, it is important to note that access is also a problematic subject when discussing audience engagement and digital culture as not everyone has the same levels of access to digital spaces for a variety of reasons.

[15] Jenny Kidd, “The Transmedia Museum,” in Museums in the New Mediascape (London: Routledge, 2014), 26. 

[16] Sarah Kenderdine and Andrew Yip, “The Proliferation of Aura: Facsimiles, Authenticity and Digital Objects,” in The Routledge Handbook of Museums, Media and Communication, ed. Kirsten Drotner et al. (London: Routledge, 2019), 280.


ASMR at the Museum | Conserving a PJ Harvey Costume | V&A. YouTube, 2021.

Barney, Darin, Gabriella Coleman, Christine Ross, and Jonathan Sterne. The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Grammatikou, Maria. “Conservation and the Museum’s New Role.” Essay. In The Public Face of Conservation, edited by Emily Williams, 45–48. London: Archetype Publications, 2013.

Kenderdine, Sarah, and Andrew Yip. “The Proliferation of Aura: Facsimiles, Authenticity and Digital Objects.” Essay. In The Routledge Handbook of Museums, Media and Communication, edited by Kirsten Drotner, Vince Dziekan, Ross Parry, and Christian Schrøder, 274–89. London: Routledge, 2019.

Kidd, Jenny. “Museum Communications in Social Networks.” Essay. In Museums in the New Mediascape, 41–55. London: Routledge, 2014.

Kidd, Jenny. “The Transmedia Museum.” Essay. In Museums in the New Mediascape, 23–40. London: Routledge, 2014.

Mclure, Ian. “Making Exhibitions of Ourselves.” Essay. In The Public Face of Conservation, edited by Emily Williams, 163–69. London: Archetype Publications, 2013.

The Restoration of Ave Maria Narrated Version. YouTube, 2019.

Thomassen-Krauss , Suzanne. “Conservation in the Public Eye: Musings from the Other Side of the Glass.” Essay. In The Public Face of Conservation, edited by Emily Williams, 143–48. London: Archetype Publications, 2013.

Victoria and Albert Museum. ASMR at the Museum | Conserving a Eurovision Dress | V&A. YouTube, 2021. HgCo1436w&index=4&t=20s.

Vol. 4 (2023)