RETHINKING THE ROLE OF MUSEUMS IN A TIME OF CRISIS
Chiara Bartolini, University of Bologna
As museums around the world have increasingly committed to making themselves digitally accessible to the public during lockdown, we have been flooded by new cultural content available online. While Italian museums have been mainly involved in a “broadcasting” approach, museums in other countries have strived to enable new and different engagement with audiences. What do these two approaches tell us about the roles museums want to fulfil and the relationship they want to create with their communities?
Museums at the time of COVID-19
Museums have been living in strange times since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the partial or total closure of their premises in spring 2020. If this has been a time of uncertainty and fear for all individuals and organisations, it has also been a time of crisis for the museum sector, with increasing furlough in several countries and a general reduction in funding. The mere existence of museums and cultural institutions has been threatened, as they have had to shut their doors to visitors and pause or stop many of their activities.
This is not the first time that museums are called to face a world-wide crisis and need to cope with an extraordinary (in the sense of out-of-the-ordinary) situation. The two world wars of the 20th century also marked a crucial moment in the history and evolution of museums: many suffered closures and take-overs during wartime, with their collections seriously threatened (Kavanagh, 1994). However, museums also used such dramatic events to rethink or discover their social function, as some provided children with schooling and contributed to disseminate knowledge about health and welfare among the public during WWI (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991). Nonetheless, this is the first time since WWII that museums have had to shut down. Technology seems to have facilitated this effort, allowing museums to keep their relationship with their communities alive during closure. The current situation may thus be another occasion for museums to rediscover and fulfil their social function. Different situations exist in different countries, and different problems may affect different museums during lockdown, but all museums face similar challenges: among them, the need to develop an effective emergency plan and identify the necessary strategies to pursue their mission and encourage public trust. The present situation has called for a profound rethinking about the roles and purposes of museums: by stepping out of their comfort zones, museums may really reconsider their priorities and embrace new opportunities. It is indeed a time of crisis, but also a time of change and hope: we need to interrogate about how museums have been preparing to change and what approaches are reflected in their practices.
Reflections on museum practices
During this challenging time, national and international museum organisations (e.g. UNESCO, ICOM, the UK Museums Association and NEMO) have committed to providing resources, guidelines and survey results as a first-aid kit to face this situation. Online discussions have also sparked across the museum sector, with professionals and researchers sharing their experience of the lockdown and reflecting on their concerns and hopes. The great variety of relevant online events confirms that the museum sector has immediately felt the need to connect and keep the dialogue going.
In the meantime, museums in different countries have reacted in different ways to the emergency by adopting communicative strategies which may be divided into two main approaches. One is represented by the commitment to massively project themselves beyond their closed walls and publish content in different digital formats to cater for different target groups. This approach is reflected by a (mostly) unilateral communication that moves from the museum towards the public: the museum publishes content which is supposed to appeal to the public and provide them with what they might need to (virtually) access its collections/exhibitions. The other approach is based on a more empathetic and collaborative attitude, in which museums try to invite people to take action and personally do something: for instance, museums may ask people to publish content themselves (e.g. pictures or text) and then museums collect or react to this content.
In Italy, the first approach has been predominant. A general preoccupation has seemed to be fostering the museum visibility during lockdown and remarking that museums are still there for everybody. The desire to promote their presence has resulted in a variety of actions. For instance, many museums have strived to provide services to schools and support teachers and families during lockdown (see e.g. the project organised by Mart, Trento). Museums, big and small, have been concerned about the public access to their collections and exhibitions and have thus committed to digitise them and create virtual tours. Those institutions that had already been able to do this before the lockdown have benefitted from their online collections to create new content or repurpose existing content to promote public engagement, e.g. through podcasts, live videos, virtual and 3D tours, as well as online exhibitions.
The variety of digital initiatives organised by Italian museums has been astounding. Some museums (e.g. the Museo Egizio in Turin) have launched an online series of videos with their director or other staff moving through the spaces of their museums and telling histories about the collections. New hashtags were launched by ICOM Italia, as well as by individual museums, to promote museums’ activities during lockdown. Other remarkable examples have been the 3D tours of the Vatican Museums, a drone view of Pompeii, and hyper-definition reproductions of artworks of the Pinacoteca di Brera. The Castello di Rivoli has even announced the opening of a new museum location, “Digital Cosmos”, i.e. a website with artworks specifically created for the digital realm. Of course, this is only a small sample of the wide array of content made available by Italian museums during lockdown, but they all seem to apply to the first approach.
Locked in our houses, we have thus been overwhelmed by the amount of digital content all at once available within a hand’s reach – probably experiencing a virtual overload. However, rather than creating real interactions, all these efforts for “broadcasting” digital content seem to be based on the (assumed) visitors’ need for culture, without actually considering what people may really need (Delgado & Arias, 2020) to get through this difficult time: in other words, have Italian museums really asked themselves what their communities need the most, and if so, have they tried to provide such services and create or continue interactions with them?
In other countries, a wider range of activities has been carried out, spanning from online mindfulness sessions (Stirling Smith art gallery) to recipe box home deliveries (Birmingham Museums). The main aim has been to respond to the needs of communities (e.g. combating social distancing and isolation) and enable new and different engagement with audiences, for instance by asking people to recreate famous artworks and thus give them something to actively do during lockdown (e.g. #museumchallenge and #artathome). Although similar initiatives were promoted by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (MIBACT) with the projects “Art you ready?” and “L’arte ti somiglia” (literally, the art looks like you), most of the related posts on social media were published by cultural institutions rather than individuals, showing scarce public participation in these initiatives. Another important strand of work that many museums beyond the Italian borders have committed to carrying out is related to contemporary collecting of COVID-19. Discussions around whether and how to approach collecting COVID-19 has sparked in several countries, e.g. by commissioning diaries of daily life or art products and including documentation in the form of oral history and daily objects. Several different museums have started to collect either “physical or digital objects, reflecting the voices and experiences” of people, as museums realise they “have a responsibility to create a national memory and record of the pandemic” (Knott, 2020). This commitment places community knowledge and experience at the heart of museum practices, acknowledging the active role of audiences. Sharon Heal has claimed that not only do museums need to keep the public engaged through digital innovation, but they also need to “engage the public in any contemporary collecting of Covid-19” and support their communities (Heal, 2020). Institutions committed to this effort include museums and archives in the UK (e.g. Science Museum Group, Museums and Galleries Edinburgh and V&A), other European countries (e.g. the Amsterdam Museum, the Medical Museion and the Wien Museum), the US and Canada (e.g. the National Museum of American History, the International Center of Photography and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights), as well as Australia and New Zealand (e.g. the National Museum of Australia, the State Library of New South Wales and Auckland Museum). This type of engagement is related to the second approach, which tends to be adopted by museums around the world but not by Italian museums.
This challenging situation has resulted in different reactions by museums in Italy and in other countries, which reflect different approaches and different roles they aim to accomplish. Although Italian museums have committed to digital innovation, they don’t seem to have prioritised meaningful interaction to accomplish their social function during lockdown. What does this tell us about the role they aim to play today? What lessons are museums learning at the time of COVID-19 and how can they build them into the “new normal” (Rees Leahy, 2020)? Although perhaps a single answer cannot be found right now,
museums may benefit from this time to reconsider their role within society.
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Dr Chiara Bartolini is an Adjunct Professor in Translation at the University of Bologna. She holds a PhD in Translation, Interpreting and Intercultural Studies. Her research interests mainly involve museum communication and the translation of museum discourse. She is fascinated by the cultural heritage sector and is a keen museum visitor.