Why the sudden question? Well, because May 18th is International Museum Day—observed as such since since 1977. The idea is that on this day, museums engage with their stakeholders and highlight the importance of the role of museums as institutions and the role they play in society.
And as with everything else, Corona is forcing us to re-examine many things that we took for granted.
Statue of Artemis, Ephesus Museum, Turkey
And museums are one of them. A museum is ‘a building or place where works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed’. There are over 55,000 museums in the world.
How many will survive COVID?
Museums by their very nature are places which need to be visited by the public—in other words, queues, groups, crowds. What shape will that take in the post-COVID world? Surely there will be a fall in numbers visiting.
Moreover, of recent years, many exhibits in museums are interactive—requiring you to press buttons, handle things, etc. All of that will have to be re-conceived. That will cost money. Financially, some may be able to survive, while others may be forced to shut down.
And there is another threat—the threat to the security of artefacts and exhibits during this time. Already, on 6th April, thieves forced open the glass doors of the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands and made off with its most valuable exhibit, a Van Gogh oil painting called “Spring Garden, the Parsonage Garden in Nuenen in Spring”. The theft highlights concerns of having high-value items in unattended locations as entire regions lock down.
On the other hand, many museums are re-inventing themselves, and taking the occasion of lockdown to go online. Several already had virtual tours, but many others are putting their exhibits online and developing virtual ways for audiences to see and experience them. Many including the Smithsonian have already made a number of tours available online.
Even more interesting is the effort of some museums to study and preserve the experiences of COVID even as it is happening. The Victoria and Albert Museum for instance is preparing to launch Pandemic Objects, an online series examining how a range of unremarkable items have become charged with new meaning and purpose. The exhibition will capture things like the variety of homemade signs cropping up in shop windows around the world, explaining new delivery services and warning people to keep 2m apart. Another focus of this exhibition will be to examine if the pandemic is revealing something new about things that are normally taken for granted. For instance, the upsurge in baking and related activities. The series is likely to examine why this should be so—it is not as if bread is not available. Why then has baking become so popular—maybe the ‘tactile and meditative quality of the process, along with a desire to feel self-sufficient’ asBrendan Cormier, senior design curator says?
There will be a new normal in museums as in everything else. Museums as buildings to be visited may go down in popularity, but the re-interpretation of “museums as an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples” will become even more relevant than before.