Sandro Debono
Jul 8, 2020 · 7 min read

A Museum Compass for Times of Distress

Thoughts and reflections presented at the international online conference ‘Museums and COVID-19 — Challenges, Re-evaluation and Future Perspectives’ organised within the project Be Museumer.

We have heard about it for days, weeks and months on end. It has been the yardstick of success and reason for concerns that keep resurfacing. It’s the R Factor!

Unless you haven’t heard about it inspite of all that has been said and done, the R factor is a mathematical equation used to determine the relevance and resilience of the COVID-19 virus at a given point in time. A high R factor means greater impact and higher deaths. A lower R factor means lower impact and a healthier environment. Governments around the world are keen to see it shrink. Some succeeded, others are still struggling.

Museum openings are increasingly dependent on the COVID-19 R factor. The higher the R factor, the less likely museums can reopen to welcome back their publics. The lower the R factor stands, the better the chance the museum stands to reopen. Is it so simple, then? Actually, it’s much more complex than that.

As revenue streams continue to dry and connecting with museum publics to return to the museum, it may still be the case that the ‘new’ normal is being lived with the mindset of the ‘old’. There is the evidence for this too. From the plethora of data coming our way, I choose the following two jigsaw pieces.

75% of museums are not looking for alternative sources of funding. This has been published by NEMO, the Network of European Museums Organisations, last May within the remit of a broader stocktake of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the European museum sector. The high percentage of museums that are not exploring alternative funding models, contrasts with the overwhelming resistance to permanently close the museum or reconsider the museum’s existence and significant revenue loss from museum shops and ticket sales.

This data suggests that museums might be on a wait-and-see mode in the hope that all will return to ‘old’ normal. Rather than seize the opportunity to rethink and reinvent itself, the museum sector might be living in the hope that things might go back to as they were before.

85% of Museum directors in the United Kingdom have ‘getting back the public to visit their museum’ as their top concern. This is one of the conclusions featured in a recently published report by Arts Fund UK. On first impression, this may seem the right thing to do but when seen in context, this concern scores higher than the wellbeing of staff and dependants (76%), cancellation of partnerships (75%) and organisation viability (56%).

This data suggests that the museum idea continues to be spatial-centred in the physical visit to the public space with the full potential of the digital still not grounded in the new museum netizen idea that the pandemic has consistently highlighted.

In short, as museums are and continue to be fully aware of the losses in their revenue streams they seem to be blocked and frozen in time, perhaps waiting for the storm to pass in the hope that all will be back to normal — the ‘old’ normal. This sense of impasse and blockage might come from the preconceived idea that museums can only exist in the physical with the rest being just a collateral of sorts. Are museums in search of a way out of the current impasse, caught between the belief that there is no change to consider and the possibilities of reinventing themselves?

A Museum R factor?

Yes, there is an R factor for museums that I would like to propose. Indeed, it has the same function and purpose to the one we have been following in the hope of being kept in check during the COVID-19 pandemic. It works very much the same way. A higher R factor for museums means that they are much more resilient, impactful and relevant. A lower R factor would translate into less reilience, relevance and impact. I like to think of it as a wired socket outlet where the LIVE (brown) and the NEUTRAL (blue) light up the appliance and complete the circuit. The EARTH (green) protects the appliance from uncalled for power surges and provides a level of protection against electric shock. The Museum R factor three-strand cable powers the post-COVID19 institution. If you’re keen on definition, this might work just fine

Th Museum R Factor is a three strand wired concept intertwining resilience, relevance and revenue. This three-strand R factor can serve the purpose of a compass for museums to weather the storm ahead and which may be just at the beginning.

Resilience is the fundamental skill that museums need at this juncture. It can be achieved in more than one way or, perhaps, a combination of ways. One could look at best practices from all over the world as guidance and case studies. Indeed, There is alot to learn from past museum experiences battling an economic crisis or struggling within conflict zones but there isn’t one way to go about it.

Resilience can also be approached through lateral thinking. We assume certain perceptions, determined concepts and specific boundaries without ever questioning the reason why we do so. Indeed, the human brain is keen on learning things but then locks the process into an automatic response or behaviour. This is where lateral thinking can make the difference.

Rather than thinking harder in the same direction, museums need to distance themselves from logical thinking. By letting go of the classical method for problem solving, best described as a step-by-step solutions starting off from data in hand, museums can find solutions in alternative ways of looking at the same challenge or problem and think about it in a broader sense to look for a new approach. By changing viewpoint and by looking at the museum institution from outside the building’s perimeter, the challenge ahead can look very different. This is a good overview of lateral thinking methodologies by Edward de Bono .

Detail from ‘TOTEM’ series

Relevance is the ambition which can help museums rethink, shape and define their guiding values. This is where the dialectic between a museum and its corresponding communities can inform the values of the post-COVID19 museum. This where deep listening and empathy can be decisive.

The way museums and society in general communicates is more often than not the outcome of ingrained cultural patterns. Museums tend to take for granted their authoritative voice and, may I add, tone without acknowledging, perhaps more often than some of them do, that there are voices to be heard and circumstances to empathise with.

Deep listening is an art waiting for museums to learn or develop further. It is not about pre-formed opionions oftentimes grounded in bias and status. It is much less about debate or waiting for the first sign that you don’t think like them so they can jump in to set you straight. For museums, good listening is about getting the mood and feel of the communities with which they bond and work, or with which they can potentially do so. It means giving open-minded, genuinely interested attention. It involves listening, from a deep, receptive, and caring place in oneself, to deeper and often subtler levels of meaning and intention in the other person. This TED-X talk provides a good overview about the difference between hearing and listening.

Detail from ‘Mediterra’ series

Revenue comes last albeit equally important. Without the resilience to weather the storm and relevance as the reason to exist and operate within a given community, revenue streams will remain strained. On the other hand, revenue is a necessary tool through which museums can become more relevant but resilience is key for museums to survive at this point in time.

When seen through the lens of resilience, revenue may also be read as barter or in kind. When seen through the lens of relevance it can be understood as assets or knowledge. Indeed, revenue is what museums might consider to be as of value can this can also be understood as assets or knowledge that enrich the institution, fund its growth and make it more relevant and resilient.

Detail from ‘TOTEM’ series

The artist featured in this blog is the young talent from the island of Malta, Gabriel Buttigieg. We thank Gabriel for giving us a sneak-peek of the works he shall be exhibiting at the art gallery Biffi Arte, Piacenza (Italy) in the coming months.

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