#AloneTogether — Museums in the Time of Coronavirus

April 22, 2020 - All

#AloneTogether — Museums in the Time of Coronavirus

While much of the nation’s attention has been directed to the healthcare and financial sectors, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every industry, including the museum field. As institutions that pride themselves on bringing history, art, and science to the public in person, stay-at-home orders implemented across states are forcing tough decisions and creative approaches on how to continue the missions of museums.

Museums are rooted in tradition by nature, so often institutions, especially smaller ones with long-tenured staff, find bringing digital into the space to be a very daunting task. A silver lining of the crisis that is forcing employees to work remotely is time. Normally the museum professionals can be found wearing any number of hats, with projects constantly piling up. As employees wonder what they can accomplish from home, now is finally the chance to dig into the “want” versus “need” pile. Unfortunately, starting social media accounts and digitizing exhibitions often take the back burner to more everyday tasks. During the pandemic, many projects and exhibitions will be put on hold or even canceled in their intended format but through social media, digital outreach, and virtual reality, museum professionals can bring their content to the public at home.

One museum that is currently leading the pack in social distance digital initiatives is the Tate. Boasting a YouTube following of 190,000 subscribers, this big-name museum already had the means to reach an audience before the pandemic spread. The first big museum in London to announce its closure, Tate had very little time to prepare and was forced to rely on measures it already had in place, highlighting the need for museums to incorporate digital into the everyday. In the meantime, Tate has taken this opportunity to launch free online film tours of the Andy Warhol and Aubrey Beardsley exhibitions. Already three weeks into self-isolation, people around the world can escape the words “social distancing” and cure cabin fever by taking a virtual walk through the galleries with the museum’s Director of International Art, Gregor Muir. Tate already has a deep commitment to digital in their museum, so evolving into a world without a physical presence will be a test of their achievements so far. The digital walkthroughs will offer even broader access to art for everyone, especially now that so many will have to cancel their trips to the museum. It seems that half the world is urging productivity with all this extra time, and the other half is recommending self-care. Virtual museum tours can satisfy both of these needs by offering a relaxing moment to appreciate aesthetics instead of all the ugliness in the world today, while also providing a way to stay in touch with culture and enhance knowledge instead of stagnating.

Maintaining audience engagement will be critical at this time. Not only is this crucial to solicit donations and ensure the return of visitors once restrictions are let up, but audiences need a sense of normalcy and escape from reality that museums can perfectly offer. Google Arts & Culture has curated highlights from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, featuring photos and videos taken by free-runners. At a time when everyone is cooped up in their homes, experience the museum in a way that feels so open and freeing allows patrons to maintain that connection with the museum. By taking the time to upload collections to Google Arts & Culture, institutions can gain a huge platform and let audiences explore links between collections in museums across the world. This may not be easy for museums, especially those whose collections are not already digitized. If this is the case, dipping into the archives of old exhibitions might be a good way to reengage with content.

As exhibitions that have been months, years, or even decades in the making are postponed or canceled indefinitely, doors are shuttering, and furloughs and layoffs loom, reorganizing priorities in museums can allow digital technologies to flourish while buildings are lifeless. Dozens of organizations are posting online content aimed at museum professionals so they can build skills during their downtime. For example, the Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness is holding a webinar titled Deriving Value from Collections in a Time of Corona. It is marketed as a “call to action for enhancing archival programs online through adaption and repurposing of content, reviewing digital usership and digital collection best practices, and capturing the value of online collections work to broadcast to administrative stakeholders.” Museum Study, a group dedicated to professional development in the field, created a Cultural Institution Crisis Response course, which will explore how museums can serve their communities through other ways as they prepare to shut down. Grenzebach Glier and Associates, a philanthropy-management consulting firm, is offering a zoom session on the topic of “Fundraising for the Nation’s Museums: Planning and Managing a Challenging Present and an Uncertain Future.” And the list goes on, as museum professionals find themselves with similarly uncertain fates, the field is banding together via digital platforms to foster learning applicable not only to the current panic but to other future unforeseen complications.

Overall, museums are not going to have an easy go of the pandemic. With already depleted endowments and no room for pay cuts, lack of box office revenues is going to hit the sector hard. However, this is a field full of inspirational and resilient folks. They have faced financial hardships in the past and come out the other side stronger. By taking advantage of digital technologies, museums can encourage their patrons to practice staying alone together.

#AloneTogether — Museums in the Time of Coronavirus was originally published in Museums and Digital Culture – Pratt Institute on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

› tags: digital culture / museums /