Almost 90 per cent of the world’s museums are facing closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aditi Ghose, an Education Assistant at Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Kolkata, says museums will have to become emotionally intelligent and responsive to stay relevant through the crisis.
In the middle of a pandemic, imagine planning a science exhibition that explains the contagion to people. What should it feature — test-kits, ventilators, surgical masks and PPE suits? Does the museum have enough supplies to create exhibits? Can the exhibits be sanitised and safely displayed for the audience? Will enough people turn up?
Museums are having to deal with all these imponderables in between frequent shutdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 90 per cent of the world’s nearly 60,000 museums are faced with full, partial or eventual closure. Most museum staff are working from home, cataloguing, processing and preserving artefacts.
Juggling to protect collections, absorbing financial blows and protecting staff and assets while staying engaged with the public, museums are still aspiring to stay relevant. The museums which have closed down due to poor financing, sponsorships or funding, are no less vulnerable than those partially open. On 29 March 2020, Vincent van Gogh’s famous work ‘Spring Garden’ was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in Netherlands during lockdown.
The International Council of Museums calls museums “institutions” owing their origins to the Wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosities featuring collections of natural history specimens, artefacts and curiosities, amassed by princes, dukes and other men of stature, museums have always provided sources and spaces for scholarly communication and informative entertainment.”
Museums are repositories of cultural memory gathering material objects and information to guard against its anticipated losses. Around the world, the treasure troves of our times sit proudly among those preceding ours, in climate controlled environments, in glass boxes, on wooden shelves and under shaded lights.
In reality, however, only about 10% of museum holdings ever go on display. Also — just like the records of book in a library point to its location without revealing the full contents — objects in museums are kept separate from their catalogued details, often offsite. The COVID-19 pandemic offers the opportunity to narrow this gap through digitization of rare photographs, videos and other content. Digital objects are the blueprints — collected, documented and interpreted well — allowing deeper and richer experiences for visitors, especially during lockdowns. They open the museum doors to a global audience, who neither had such an opportunity in the past nor may have in an uncertain future. To survive the crisis, museum professionals across the world must embrace the flexibility of opening up museums to the digital realm.
A one-dimensional transfer of knowledge from museums to its stake-holders — such as through overnight virtual museum tours or mobile applications — does more harm than good. The needs of audiences have changed, as has the audience composition itself. As crisis keeps people at home and they turn to museums for their science knowledge repositories, it is worth creating digital content. Instead of uploading digital copies of existing galleries online, making ample usage of the autonomy, multi-layered multimedia and linked content that the new medium provides might help museums reach entirely new audiences. A website doesn’t have walls, a gallery doesn’t have tabs. The faster we understand this difference and stop replicating our gallery contents online, the easier it will be to contextualise information.
These are tough times – for museums as well the audience they cater to. Amidst the prevailing confusion, institutional body language could be the powerful unspoken and unwritten message that museums could convey. “In the mist of chaos, museums break the walls that keep us apart,” assures Beryl Ondiek, Director of National Museum in Seychelles. Museums that survive this pandemic will emerge with deeper connections to their audiences and communities. A well-defined, battle-tested sense of purpose, will make them stronger than ever – and also strengthen those they serve. As Anne Marie Afeiche, the Executive Director General of Lebanon’s Council of Museums points out,”We will come through this and we are keeping in mind, for after COVID-19, the reprogramming of activities in our museums, because by saving culture, we save society, it’s diversity, it’s vitality and it’s creativity”.
What’s missing in the global COVID-19 news reportage are the stories behind the stark numbers of those dead or infected. These stories should take centrestage while planning for an exhibition on COVID-19 — the oral histories and the first-hand experiences of people. When the intensity of the crisis needs to be conveyed in a public exposition several years from now, a well curated collection of empty cartons of PPE suits, a jumbo-sized sanitizer jar, a handmade mask or perhaps a hand-written shopping list of essential items will be telling. Likewise, by engaging our audiences emphatically in our closed musums, respecting their voices, allowing them choices and approaching a fresh, unprejudiced attitude towards opening our doors, shall go a long way in keeping museums exciting. The Smithsonian Museum is actually collecting such coronavirus ‘artefacts’ to document the pandemic and plans on letting oral history shape the exhibition.
Closer home, the National Council of Science Museums is also curating an interactive digital exhibition on the pandemic.
Creating, hosting or managing museums has never been fast, easy or cheap. Making them digital or interactive will also not be. Once museums have survived these uncertain times, they need to become more emotionally intelligent and responsive. Museums have to become good listeners.
(Aditi Ghose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)