The Empty Museum

and a post-pandemic museum landscape

Sandro Debono
Mar 16 · 8 min read
A place for rebirth (Digital print on canvas, 2012)

The plight and humongous challenges that museums across the globe are facing at this point in time is making the headlines. COVID-19, popularly known as coronavirus, continues to close down museums world wide and, as expected, leaving museums with none other than their social media presence. The Google Arts & Culture project featuring over 500 museums and galleries across the globe, now ticks all the right boxes albeit providing a relatively basic measure of access. Indeed, museums are making good use of it, particularly those that do not have the social media presence that the big museums have invested in over the past years. Incidentally, a good overview of the current museum landscape’s social media offering has been published by the Museum Computer Network.

There have been bespoke reactions to the challenge posited by the coronavirus pandemic. I choose to list two of these but am sure there are many more out there that equally merit a mention.

1. #UffiziDecameron Project — Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence

This is nothing short of a bespoke online tour but the branding makes it come across as a well prepared contingency plan led by the face and voice of Uffizi’s very own director Eike Schmidt. The project is inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron which tells the story of ten youngsters who seek refuge in the hills outside Florence during the plague and while away the time by telling a story a day. Schmidt’s declared objective is clear

Evitiamo ogni contagio, tranne quello della bellezza — let us avoid being infected other than by beauty.

Eike Schmidt’s online presence is certainly most welcome as museum publics go virtual out of circumstances. In a sense, a guided tour by the museum director is the most rarest of occasions when visiting a museum but this type of online presence is not completely new. The Museo Italia project conceived by then Musei Vaticani director Antonio Paolucci and aired in 2015 is very much in line with this approach. In any case, museums have been using live streaming to showcase their work for quite sometime . In some instances, curators and museum professionals have also been taking questions during live streaming sessions, making for a much more engaging and interactive presence.

In any case, the #UffiziDecameronProject is a good example of cultural branding … and other Italian museums are following suit, individually and as part of strategically organised initiatives!

2. Reinventing the virtual experience — Beijing’s X Museum

X Museum in Beijing has been forced to delay its planned opening date and, in the meantime, has launched its interactive virtual project space, giving people an opportunity to explore the institution from their own homes.

This is not one other virtual tour akin to the ones available on Google Arts and Culture Project. The site, created by artist Pete Jiadong Qiang, is framed as a game of sorts where users become players made free from the laws of physics and architecture as they start to roam the museum space.

The project was not conceived as a reaction to restricted access measures brought about by the coronavirus pandemic but has certainly been put to good use. As a novel alternative to the traditional museum experience, the site complements the museum’s future physical activities and, as rightly pointed out by museum curator Poppy Dongxue Wu, seeks to disrupt the way people use museum websites today. In Dongxwe Wu’s very own words

“I am suspicious of how museums’ online platforms today still follow the logic of Web 1.0, producing contents with minimal interactivity… Gamifying the experience comes with the objectives of provoking participation and curiosity.”

This is certainly a most interesting development in museum web interface. It is certainly a project to follow and holds promise!

A place for an Annuncation (digital print on canvas, 2007)

The coronavirus pandemic has caught museums unprepared much as with other sectors and industries. Their reaction is nothing short of what the Director of The Museo Egizio in Torino (Italy), Christiano Greco, describes as cultural resistance (resistenza culturale).

Resistance certainly comes at a cost which even the big museums may struggle to mitigate. The likes of the Louvre, the Metropolitan and the British Museum to mention a few, had the knowledge, funding and expertise to adapt and react, oftentimes resorting to the social media presence that they built over the years. The smaller to medium-sized museums have been left struggling for breath (pun intended) and some ought to be commended for the courage to stand up and take matters in hand. The one I’m conversant with concerns Castello di Rivoli in Torino, Italy. The museum director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, is working around the clock to create new virtual tours in response to her “public duty” to hold the bridge with her communities and publics. Some of these have been already posted online. As I write this blogpost the Italian Association for Small Museums (Associazione Nazionale Piccoli Musei) is doing its best to mobilise …

Are we then facing the risk of a severely contracted museum landscape in a post-pandemic scenario? It may certainly be the case of ‘survival of the fittest’ but this may also be the catalyst of a culture change that may permanently change the way how museums define themselves and operate.

Lessons learnt the hard way?

The crux of the coronavirus pandemic issue is visitor numbers. Indeed, and more often than not, the museum chooses to be a physical space, much less of a virtual space but almost never aspires to be both at the same time. Some of the big museums do come explore a possible virtual-physical identity, at least in their ethos. We can certainly mention the Metropolitan (New York) which considers its online presence as its fourth location (in addition to the Main building, The Cloisters and the forthcoming Met Breuer). Spain’s Museo Nacional del Prado has an online presence which aspires to spearhead a more open and accessible museum in a larger sense by employing data to improve documentation, publishing, editing, communication and publication, rather than rehashing data in hand for reuse by third parties. But what about the smaller to medium-sized museum institution? The Google Arts and Culture project shall be filling the gaps but this shall certainly not be enough… far from it!

The answer, at least in part, is coming from the Oakland Museum in California, paradoxically published a few weeks before the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a pandemic. For this museum success is measures in social impact. In short, and thanks to data in hand, the museum decided to focus less on increasing and diversifying its audience base. Instead, the museum seeks to answer one simple question

“what is the difference we are trying to make in the world?”

With many small to medium-sized museums choosing to go into complete hybernation waiting for the storm to pass, and with those museums and museum networks that have constantly considered themselves as being prevalently tourist attractions, there is little that their ethos and values can contribute to make this world a better place. Understandably, many shall be feeling the brunt of a drastically reduced revenue stream coming from ticket sales, much less revenue generating events and hire of venue. Those that do not have the financial and governmental backing to weather the storm might be facing the prospect of having to close down. But are we really faced with such a damning doom and gloom scenario?

Royal Palace (photography on canvas, 2009)

The need to adapt, adjust and rethink may now be a question of survival and a post-pandemic scenario may leave us with a new breed of museum netizens. These three out of many more possible medium to long-term reactions discussed here have been under discussion for quite some time and are certainly not new to many.

A. Consider your assets as a resource to be used beyond expert and connoisseur

This is not about venue hire or hosting traditionally alien events at your museum. The problem with these short-sighted solutions is that these rarerely build on the unique selling proposition that museums hold and which go way beyond the physical.

By going beyond the connoisseur in the specific discipline to which your museum belongs, and by broadening your pool of expertise to include non-traditional expert users, your museum can improve its outreach potential and become relevant to a much bigger audience base. There are stories to be told, ideas to be explored, languages to be learnt and information to be provided… that go beyond the narrow reading of a museum collection.

B. Look for the opportunity to negotiate meaning rather than declaring meaning, relevance and significance

This is tantamount to a culture change. Curators with an academic background in the discipline pertinent to the museum’s collections oftentimes find it hard to let go of their authority when shaping meanings and acknowledging values.

By choosing to negotiate meaning and empower a polyphonic cache of opinions and reactions beyond official versions, your museum can open up to a greater sense of ownership and participatory experiences which can, over time, transform the museum institution into a public cultural space.

C. Consider your museum’s identity as being both physical and virtual at the same time.

With your expert base broadened to include a much varied and inter-disciplinary portfolio, and your curatorial expertise becoming more keen on negotiating meaning and empowering participatory experiences, a physical-virtual experience should not just be a declared ambition.

It could be a question of building bridges with your audiences to reach them during times where you have a story to tell that is relevant to the now. You can acquire the flexibility to provide services that your community needs and which can take off from your main resource (your collection). Your virtual identity can be much more articulate and much more far reaching to include not just a broader cache of lectures, live streams and interactive experiences that are public-centred and useful to the now. In short, it would be about acknowledging empathy much more as your guiding value. Your museum is there for your community and they will become your inhabitants once your’re there for them when the time comes!

All this would relegate the traditional museum visit to being but a fraction of a broader, longer and more enriching relationship.


The choice of pictures featured here is by Spanish artist Jose Manuel Ballestrer. The selection of works may be subject to copyright.

The Humanist Museum

Thoughts on a human-centred museum

Sandro Debono

Written by

Curious mind | Pragmatic dreamer| the human-centred post-pandemic museum. sandrodebono.com

The Humanist Museum

Thoughts on a human-centred museum

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