Helen Rees Leahy, Institute for Cultural Practices
Helen Rees Leahy discusses the politics and provision of cultural access during and after the Coronavirus lockdown. Her focus is on museums in the UK and the challenges they face in ensuring and expanding equitable access in a society that is both united by the experience of the pandemic and also divided by inequalities of health, space, time and wealth.
In the UK as elsewhere, the experience of the Coronavirus pandemic has produced a fractured conversation (replayed daily in our physical and online spaces) between two broad competing versions of the immediate future. On the one hand, there is a desire to revert to ‘business as usual’ as fast as possible and on the other hand, an ambition to fashion a different way of living that rejects the failed premises of the old ‘normal’. But however attractive and necessary the prospect of social, economic and environmental change is for many, there is no guarantee that the ‘new normal’ will be more sustainable or equitable than life BC (Before Coronavirus). Certainly, the experience of the national lockdown has both revealed and exacerbated existing inequalities of wealth, space, time and health. This pandemic is not the great leveller.
For many cultural organisations, including museums, the lockdown has produced an existential crisis, both practical and philosophical. Put crudely, how can a cultural sector with high fixed costs (buildings, wages) survive financially with no revenue-generating audiences? More fundamentally, are pre-virus measures of ‘success’ (including full houses and crowded galleries) and evidence of public benefit (based on the alignment of organisational practice with extrinsic public policy) either viable or sufficient in the immediate or longer term future?
Right now, operational planning for an uncertain future is both necessary and impossible. So how has the cultural sector – and museums in particular – responded to the first six weeks of lockdown in the UK? The most obvious public manifestation of this response has been a digital stampede to produce online content in the form of exhibition tours, quizzes, blogs, workshops, talks and more. For example, anyone with a tv licence can now watch hours of Culture in Quarantine on the BBC, much of it produced with cultural organisations. It’s a laudable effort simultaneously to entertain and educate a population at a distance, while also maintaining crucial brand awareness in a crowded cultural marketplace and demonstrating the public value of the broadcaster and its partners.
This rapid expansion of online content is also one of the many ironies of the pandemic for people who were already living in social isolation, whether for health, social or economic reasons, before they were joined by the rest of the population. For many disabled people, this is just one example of the sudden availability of access, long denied or ignored in an ableist society – from online meetings and education, to home working and local deliveries. What was previously impossible has become not only possible but ‘normal’ because healthy people need it too – at least, as long as the lockdown lasts. Expanded cultural access is now a priority because the majority of physically ‘able’ spectators find themselves constrained, housebound, uncertain about the future and newly vulnerable. In other words, aspects of living with disability have become commonplace, and cultural organisations have suddenly recognised how lonely this can be.
However, the distribution of digital access is uneven and unjust, whether for physical, economic or technological reasons. The expansion of online access is a crisis stop gap, not a panacea. And it raises difficult questions about the politics of production and distribution, as well as the purpose and experience, of digital reproduction, that will persist beyond this phase of the virus.
Questions about when and how cultural should reopen their doors to the public are equally challenging. The complexities confronting theatres and concert halls are clearly different from those faced by museums, which are often regarded as easier to manage. Some commentators have compared museums with DIY stores (many of which have reopened in the UK): they argue that if it is possible to buy hardware safely, it is possible to visit a museum safely (Saumarez Smith 2020). Their thinking is along these lines: museums can operate a timed entry system to control visitor numbers; staff can enforce social distancing in galleries; visitors can be told to wear a face covering; supplies of hand sanitiser can be provided and the museum café will remain shut. Actually, this sounds dismal: it ignores both the vital sociability of museum visiting for many people, as well as the unpredictable path of the individual encounter. People have become used to physical spacing along a one way route to buy a tin of beans or a packet of nails: the history of museum visiting and our own experience as wandering spectators show that the pleasures of the museum are less easily regulated (Rees Leahy 2012).
The kind of museum envisaged in this scenario is relatively small and quiet. It explicitly excludes the over crowding that fuels the blockbuster exhibition economy and the international tourist market. It also risks being explicitly exclusionary. Asking people to queue, removing seats, insisting on a certain pace of movement are all measures that privilege a specific able-bodied mode of visiting. Yes, there can be different hours for, say, children or disabled people to visit, but any kind of segregation always articulates and reinforces inequalities. Perhaps it’s just easier to discount certain groups of people entirely for the time being? One avowedly optimistic museum consultant recently wrote, ‘It is highly unlikely that older and immunocompromised people would be tempted to visit museums in large numbers at this moment.’ (Szanto 2020). This may or may not be true, but it is a divisive observation that deflects organisational responsibility and normalises cultural exclusion.
It is too soon to know whether museums will adopt practices that are more – or less – inclusive post-virus. For all the talk of the ‘slow museum’ and the end of big ticket exhibitions that depend on the global movement of objects and people, the combined churn of programming and visitors is central to the operating model of many museums. The upheaval of the lockdown and the new social norms that follow, will not necessarily result in greater democratisation of access unless organisations recognise their own fragility and learn from the skills and resilience of people who are familiar at living with multiple limitations.
To put this into historical perspective: the media benchmark for every crisis in Britain since 1945 is the national narrative of endurance, sacrifice and eventual victory in the Second World War. While it is obviously absurd to compare six years of global conflict with six weeks (so far) of national lockdown, there are some striking parallels for museums. Between 1939 and 1945, collections went into quarantine out of public sight, museum buildings were requisitioned to accommodate a vastly expanded state apparatus, many personnel were redeployed and only a skeleton staff remained on site (Pearson 2017). Under these trying and often dangerous conditions, public access was very restricted, but some museums found new ways to serve their communities by mounting local exhibitions, opening tea rooms and hosting concerts. In turn, visitors recorded how much they valued these more relaxed social spaces.
Did such innovations last beyond the end of the war? Yes and no. Then, as now, the desire for change was tempered by the pull of the familiar. Plus there was no national policy framework for museums which remained outside the remit of the cultural welfare state in the form of the new Arts Council of Great Britain, founded in 1946.
The shock of a national lockdown has shown that it is possible to work differently, however provisionally, at short notice. It is also clear that some cultural organisations, including museums, will not survive the loss of revenue this year, especially from ticket sales. Optimists and advocates for change within the cultural sector will need to be remarkably resilient if they are to transform this crisis into an opportunity. Surely the most necessary lesson of the pandemic is our shared vulnerability, if only we are willing to understand what it really means to forge a new, deeper cultural politics of solidarity and compassion.
BBC, Culture in Quarantine (Accessed 5 May 2020).
Saumarez Smith, Charles (2020) ‘Museums Re-opening’, April 29 (Accessed 5 May 2020).
Rees Leahy, Helen (2012) Museum Bodies, Ashgate.
Szanto, Andras (2020) ‘People Need Art in Times of Crisis. That’s Why Museums Should Be Among the First Institutions to Reopen for Business—Here’s How’, artnet, April 14 (Accessed 5 May 2020).
Pearson, Catherine (2017) Museums in the Second World War: Curators, Culture and Change, Routledge.
Helen Rees Leahy is Professor Emerita, Museology, at the University of Manchester. She retired in 2017 and now lives in north Wales where she continues to think and write about cultural access. She has progressive Multiple Sclerosis.