Don’t stand too close’ is a signage that you find all over museums, much before the Covid-19 pandemic made it your safety talisman in 2020. And yet, the institution known most for physical distancing and sparseness suffered a body blow this year.
Hundreds of museum workers were laid off across the world. Ninety per cent of the museums closed down. One estimate says that one in eight may never reopen. For those museums that do survive the current crisis, the question on everyone’s mind is: what will the post-pandemic museum look like?
This is not the first time the museum institution will change in its 600-year history. From palace collections to being called ‘cabinets of curiosities’ to Enlightenment-era knowledge centres for scholars of natural history and elite art philanthropists; extensions of universities to allowing the masses in; then another makeover as an informal learning institution, and then immersive experiential sites in the second half of the 20th century.
So, what is different about this Covid-induced makeover moment in the museum world?
Two words. ‘Digital Age’.
Shifting role of physical exhibits
It is the first time that people are asking if museums even require physical brick-and-mortar structures for their public function. Some said that the building is needed just to store artefacts, not display them — or what architect Bel Spolidoro called “cemeteries for objects”.
The underlying belief in this ‘museums without walls’ digital fantasy is that viewing objects and artworks online is as good as being in their physical presence.
Last year, when the cash-starved Philadelphia History Museum shut down, Drexel University took over the responsibility of its objects. It plans to lend these artefacts to and advice third-party physical and digital exhibitors. So, a permanent building is needed only for safekeeping.
As questions around the future of the museum raged this year, drive-in and drive-through exhibitions like the Toronto Van Gogh exhibition called “Gogh in Your Car” were showcased. Virtual museum tours and social media activity (the #MuseumsUnlocked) increased as a swift response to the lockdown. Some museums began featuring long webinars every day on their sites. Let’s face it. Curators are not communicators. They are subject experts. It’s docents (gallery educators who give guided walking tours) who know how to present art and history in an engaging way to viewers.
Then there was a much-talked-about YouTube series called “Cocktails With a Curator”. Curators guided you through a single work of art from their collection, and also gifted you a recipe of a ‘thematically relevant’ cocktail.
“We are content providers,” Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, said famously. By saying that, he took away museum essentialism and made it like any other content function.
Go digital, or go bust
But going digital didn’t come so easily to everybody this year. Many were woefully unprepared.
Museums that were best equipped were those that already had a digital DNA. That’s how a new digital divide in the museum sector was laid bare. Only five per cent of museums in Africa and small island countries could offer online content.
For months, the websites of India’s foremost museums continued to appear as if nothing had changed. Their sites remained clunky, static, and difficult to navigate. The only acknowledgement of the crisis was a thin, running scroll that said that they are closed because of Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines. There was really no conversation about the biggest historical event on these websites. This, even as curators around the world got busy collecting artefacts and stories about the pandemic, like the Smithsonian’s Curating Crises programme showed.
Just like the Spanish flu was historicised by museums like the Smithsonian and the Florence Nightingale Museum earlier, in 2019, a museum in Philadelphia commemorated 100 years of the flu and mounted an exhibition called “Spit Spreads Death”.
A cursory visit to the main history museums in India showed no such drives to document, collect, or preserve the Covid story in India. Neither the community, nor the contemporary are ever a part of museum conversations in India.
But by the end of the year, many like the National Museum in New Delhi, Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, and National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) began offering virtual tours and ‘ghar se museum’ programmes.
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In the new era, the balance of power between objects and visitors will have to be reimagined. Over the years, Western museums have been moving from object-centrism to visitor-centrism. If digital is the way forward, how long will museums continue to insist on your physical visit as the only authentic experience?
Two decades ago, former senior social scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, Zahava Doering, asked a powerful question about how museums should view its visitors: Strangers, guests or clients? In the client paradigm, a museum caters to what a visitor wants, rather than treat the visitor as a passive receptacle of one-way cultural transmission.
But this revolution is still largely incomplete, wrote museum consultant Michelle Moon. Museums were still shifting from the paradigm of “being about something to being for somebody”, and from “one of mastery to one of service”, and the pandemic and lockdown pushed them toward the next phase. Suddenly, all the new emphasis on 3D tours and the primacy of objects is threatening to undo decades of incremental work in improving visitor experience.
The digital push also threw up some bizarre and problematic predictions.
Times London columnist Alice Thomson wrote that the digital focus is an unexpected windfall for poorer and formerly colonised countries that have called Western museums to de-colonise their collections, and return objects that were looted, like the Elgin marbles, the Kohinoor, and the Rosetta stone. The British Museum, as comedian John Oliver famously remarked, is like an active crime scene. The whole argument that Third World countries don’t have good climate-controlled museums to keep their artefacts safe is now defeated if viewing will mostly be digital. It sounds like flawless logic, but the digital image is not, and can’t be as good as the actual object. The digital realm is notoriously vulnerable to manipulation. As Anthony Giddens argued, modern life and technology tend to sequester us from primary experiences.
“There is a big difference between acquiring information about something (a service which the web can provide) and experiencing that something,” said Jay Rounds, an American museum scholar. “The museum is one of the very few institutions in modern society that deal in a serious way with the relationships between humans and the material world.”
When a museum shuts down, we lose a shared space of knowledge about cultures and the arts (our own and others’), but we also begin to chip away at human tolerance in fundamental ways.
This is a do-over or die moment.
Doering wrote in the Curator the Museum Journal in October that “continuing to use established processes and procedures, to proclaim the same “missions, visions, and goals…will lead to institutional societal irrelevance. Museums’ time for reflection and rethinking has expired.”
The author is the Opinion Editor at ThePrint. She is also the curator of Remember Bhopal Museum and has worked in several American museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. She has conducted oral history sessions with Bhopal gas tragedy survivors and American disability rights activists for the Missouri History Museum. Views are personal.