Caring for people and objects — museums in the COVID-19 era
Is the primary purpose of museums to care for objects or for people? Are the two sometimes mutually exclusive? In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and amid calls for greater transparency, decolonisation and social inclusion in the museum sector, this article considers some of the challenges that memory institutions face today.
At their core, memory institutions strive to preserve cultural memory through objects. In practice, this takes different forms, such as collections management (“which classes of objects are relevant, important or authentic? which belong in a museum? how should they be described?”) and digital preservation for long-term storage and access.
Stewardship of museum objects sits alongside a growth model centred around greater openness and civic participation. Decentralised and participatory practices, under various labels such as community archives, community-based heritage, participatory archiving, participatory heritage, digital storytelling, aim to (1) give more power, more space and more influential voices to the community, and (2) reach out to people of marginalized and under-represented groups. The gap between the potential of social inclusion and what this means in practice may depend on how institutions define under-represented communities, what measures they take to include the diverse voices, and their views on silencing and silence.
In my article for the POEM Newsletter (Issue 4), I gave an example of harmful silence: the false neutrality which becomes a barrier to social media practices. The upper management of a museum envisions a socially engaged outreach program. It wants to see its outreach activities include voices of under-represented groups. However, when the social media staff posts images of contemporary injustices on Instagram, the bosses want to avoid discomfort and decide to take down the post. This case isn’t rare in the museum world.
For many GLAMs this year’s global pandemic has catalysed shifts in their strategic priorities and challenged their hierarchies of value. Memory institutions have been forced to rapidly adapt to a new reality: adding resources to online activities, increasing the use of social media, and reconfiguring front-of-house tasks.
If ‘accessibility’ for many GLAMs, pre-COVID, mostly concerned physical spaces and infrastructure, what does it mean when those spaces are no longer accessible? With many buildings now closed, digital media have brought people to museum collections, via websites, social media, online catalogues, 360-degree journeys and so on. Inside museums, this has revived discussions about the relative value of physical vs digital interaction, and consideration of new forms of engagement.
During this crisis, people on the margins have suffered most. Progress towards social inclusion goals might be achieved if museums’ digital offer better served marginal users and precarious social groups. Modern collections management systems allow many museums to remotely access and manage data — a huge advancement from in-house systems from the mid-1990s. This enables to provide remote services and equal access to marginalised groups of users, such as people with disabilities, people living in disadvantaged communities, and senior citizens.
The COVID-19 pandemic gives museums an opportunity to evaluate the quality and equity of the digital access they provide. As it becomes clearer that social distancing measures are likely to persist, demand for online ways of enjoying culture has increased (at least, early in the pandemic). Virtual tours and online exhibits provided by memory institutions and Google Arts & Culture offer some advantages over traditional, physical forms of gallery-hopping experiences.
The contrast between the socially inclusive potential and the practical reality of the museum experience may encourage institutions to reevaluate the balance between caring for objects and caring for people. The art of managing collections is, of course, not just about storing, preserving and displaying objects, but also making them available in digital media for the long term. In an interview I conducted with Per Cullhed, strategic development manager at Uppsala University Library, he shared this perspective:
‘If you want to publish something on the Internet, the first thing you might think about, if you’re not in the LAM (Libraries, Archives, Museums) world, is to put the resource on a webpage and make them accessible and reusable. But everyone knows that the webpage might go down in 5 to 10 years and then everything is gone. If you have it in a safe repository and use the web to expose what you have, it doesn’t matter if the webpage goes down because the material is still in the repository.’
Per was talking about Alvin, a digital cultural heritage platform operated by a consortium of 15 different libraries in Sweden. I took his emphasis on long-term preservation as a social dimension of care: care as opening up ourselves to the vulnerability of systems and the risks of failure — in this case, the risk of losing memory objects. The act of storing digital objects in a digital repository with a permanent link, and the act of maintaining that repository and strengthening the archival record are gestures of care for both objects and people. Care for objects because while the record and the link are permanent, other digital repositories can link back to it. Care for people because in that way, system designers put their effort into keeping people’s memory traceable. People can discover the record by the web, or by other means (participatory archiving, for example).
In this moment of crisis, the question of how to avoid making collection objects and exhibition experiences hard to reach is critical. The digital transformation that many GLAMs are experiencing has shed light on the ability of technology to engage audiences. User feedback can help inform product and UX design. Participatory approaches help institutions better understand users’ needs, behaviours and social patterns in uses of technology. From the institution’s perspective, a well-balanced digital ecosystem responds to the care of objects and delivers benefits for people.
I’d like to conclude on a positive note by giving an example of an inclusive digital ecosystem: cultural heritage in 3D. Heritage organisations have recently made a huge effort to 3D scan their objects, making them publicly available and ready for reuse on open access terms. On Sketchfab, a platform where users upload digital scans and can make them freely available under Creative Commons licences, ten 3D models of the State Rooms of Sweden’s Hallwyl Museum have been downloaded 20,000 times and viewed more than 150,000 times.
Encounters in the 3D world are often fascinating. Erik Lernestål, an imaging professional who created these 3D models using photogrammetry, told me that after publishing, he started finding reuse examples all over the Internet. On the online game platform VRChat, one user created a virtual reality world of the Hallwyl House based on Erik’s models. The Communication and Digitization team at the Swedish National Historical Museums (SHMM), where Erik works, are now exploring the possibilities of an augmented reality guided tour.
The integration of 3D models into various gaming and industrial environments has opened up paths to new audiences. More recently, the music video Circles by the band Post Malone (which has over 240 million views until 30th June 2020) featured in its beginning few seconds the parade shield of King Erik XIV of Sweden, whose 3D models was also created by Erik and uploaded on Sketchfab for others to reuse.
In June 2020, there was more good news for enthusiasts of immersive experiences. Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has launched the new virtual tour of the Edinburgh Castle. The Castle’s stunning 3D models, including more than 330 buildings across Scotland that the HES has digitally documented, were uploaded to Sketchfab, giving visitors around the world in-depth access to Scotland’s iconic fortress.
It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had a sudden and massive impact on the culture sector. Most memory institutions were closed. Many cultural heritage events were postponed indefinitely. Museums which had been behind the technology curve were exposed as being unprepared. Many were forced to improvise and experiment with ways to fulfil their missions in completely different ways.
The response of many GLAMs to these challenges, in finding engaging online formats, has been impressive and is a testament to the creativity of museum professionals. (Has anyone counted how many new hashtags they are using?) Museums have re-purposed technology in creative ways, providing virtual gallery experiences to visitors, and digital platforms for them to add their voices.
For museums today, in a climate of global pandemic and socioeconomic crisis, the considerations of collections care, access and public engagement discussed in this article are more pressing than ever. Many challenges and opportunities lie ahead.