Museums are Facing Closure amid the Coronavirus Pandemic
Shelter in place orders forced museums to close to avoid spreading covid19. What should they do to serve their audiences best?
Museums have been cultivating culture, history, tradition, and education for centuries. They shape our understanding of beauty, heritage, and skills while being a reflection of reality and encouraging cultural resilience as audiences of all ages visit them. Museums offer visitors a glimpse of human history, of some of the most marginalized voices in society. No other institution collects, displays, and mediates examples of our three-dimensional world as an aid to encourage understanding and joy; museums are unique.
Yet, the shelter in place orders brought a new challenge for museums, as their revenues decreased immediately without visitors. Studies by UNESCO and the International Council of Museums show that ninety percent of the world’s museums, about 85,000 institutions, were closed by the coronavirus pandemic. The closure has affected museums big and small, new and established, featuring art or science.
The UN agency estimates that one in eight museums worldwide could face permanent closure, saying that nearly 13 percent of museums may never be reopened. A survey by Americans for the Arts estimated the economic impact of coronavirus on the American arts and culture sector at over $5.5 billion so far. In Rome, for example, the once-in-a-lifetime Raphael show, featuring 120 masterworks by the artist, was shut down within days of opening. A new report by the International Council of Museums found in a survey of about 1,300 museum professionals from 103 countries that 13% of museum workers expect their museum to close permanently.
Museums are based in brick and mortar buildings and are strongly dependent on a steady stream of visitors. Museums consist of a building to house collections of objects for inspection, study, and enjoyment. They are designed to present artifacts and guide their guests — children, adults, and returning experts — in a planned and well-thought-out path of discovery. Every artifact is given a regular location in the building, either in the exhibition rooms or in the reserves.
One of the major tasks a museum can perform is to bring before our eyes the most exciting stories of our history, the natural world, and our culture and civilization. Museums have been facing the challenge of attracting audiences’ attention in the digital age for years. The omnipresence of digital copies of works of art has been at the center of museums’ attempts to stay relevant and attractive. When the world settles into an extended period of staying-at-home and museums must restrict their audience from visiting, they face an even more significant challenge to fulfilling their goals. Not only is the digital age challenging their brick and mortar presence, but the coronavirus has shut down their physical presence altogether. In this scenario, the audience simply cannot visit museums and explore their collections.
For better or worse, museums, as most nonprofit organizations, have always relied on the financial support of governments and philanthropists. The stream of visitors is rarely sufficient to maintain the artifacts or exhibits and the museums’ staff. Many museums struggle to support themselves through times of financial stability, let alone during the coronavirus financial crisis.
Signs of relevance in a changing world
Although art museums struggle to stay relevant during the shelter at home orders, the public’s love of art has developed a life of its own. The Getty Museum brilliantly challenged quarantined people to recreate famous works of art, and the audience swept the social networks with hilarious and creative photographs. What the Getty Museum challenge uncovered is the public’s overwhelming adoration of art and its influential role as inspiration. By imitating the famous works of art, the audience made the ultimate application of artistic language, rendering the new reality through home-made adaptations. This challenge proved that the appeal of art exists beyond museums’ brick and mortar walls. It exists in the digital sphere and the audience’s collective memory at the same time.
What does that mean? Simply put, audiences appreciate art and are longing for the knowledge, joy, and inspiring interaction that museums offered before. It also means that museums hold more importance to society than displays of three-dimensional artifacts — through art’s digital presence and our collective memory.
As museums are starting to reopen, they should pay attention to the subtext of what the audience is telling them. Museums should acknowledge the audience’s affection towards the art itself and find innovative ways to reconnect. One of the essential lessons of the pandemic is that the digital world, stretching the conventional dimensions of time and space, will be an imminent part of our cultural and educational worlds, even more than before.
Traditionally, museums gather material artifacts under one roof for convenience. The digital platform can spread the artifacts’ presence over time and space and bring it closer to the spectators’ home. Museums should explore innovative and up to date methods of reproduction and exploration of art and offer artistic experience in various ways, in addition to the traditional physical display.
One way to offer a different artistic experience is to produce appealing and engaging written material about the artifacts, the artists, and their relevance. One of the primary goals of museums is to provide the identification and annotation of the objects as a first step towards understanding them. While the audience cannot see the objects first hand, they can enjoy the educational aspect. It is not merely an online ‘guided tour’ of the museum, rather an in-depth approach that provides independent access to the artifacts themselves.
Another way to communicate with audiences could be to collaborate with other cultural and educational institutions to produce content that would preserve the interest in art and be more accessible to the audience. For example, museums can create videos, podcasts, Twitter accounts, and newsletters that explore art and offer context to the artists or the historical period and encourage the audience to imitate it. Take, for example, the funny Twitter account of the Museum of English Rural Life in the UK, which combines humor and knowledge brilliantly, even before the pandemic. The NY Frick Collection has launched its “Cocktails with a Curator” series of videos, discussing the museum’s beloved paintings. The London based Victoria and Albert Museum put its Kimono exhibition online after it was temporarily closed. The Rockefeller Archive Center is another example, telling exciting and relevant stories about the Rockefeller Foundation’s charitable giving to fight diseases and support public health. Another adaptation could be to tell the engaging stories about what goes on behind the scenes of famous works of art, like the Rijksmuseum video explaining the famous gelatin corsage.
However, most of the very recent online-guided-tours are replicating the same pattern as the brick and mortar tour. The spectators are guided by the curators but have little freedom to interpret the art by themselves. This kind of activity is mostly answering the educational aspect of the museum’s work. Other solutions could be focusing on museums’ open gardens by inviting the visitors to tour the spacious grounds and interact with the artifacts freely, under social distancing rules.
Collaboration with local nature centers, libraries, and community centers could extend museums’ outreach to larger audiences, encourage children to create art through competitions, invite the audience to share its reflections, and take the freedom to interpret art, etc. Such collaborations could be inviting a curator for a ‘show and tell’ or taking a unique artifact and presenting it outside the museum’s halls. It is not just videos that share the knowledge that matters; it is the interaction with the audience and their ability to express their identity in the process of interacting with the art that matters.
In this process, museums should meet their audience where they are, sheltered at home. The visitors are still the observer; only the physical meeting point has changed. During a visit to the museum, the spectator’s thought travels far beyond ordinary things. It is this pattern that should be embraced and developed. During the coronavirus, the audience is enthusiastic to express itself and engage in creative content; museums should open their walls and invite the audience to see their treasure and offer new paths of interpretation.