There are about 60,000 museums around the world. According to UN News, nearly 90% of those cultural institutions have had to close their doors as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. With news coming in on gradual re-openings of museums and exhibitions, we were interested to hear how the industry experts have experienced this lockdown and how they see the future. We sat down with four international key players and influencers in the museum world to gain their insights in how 2020 has pushed the boundaries for museums.
In this first of a series of blogposts based on those conversations, we’ll share their thoughts on how museums will re-open. Because there’s more to restarting a museum than just to fling the doors open again and let visitors flood in.
Keeping visitors engaged during lockdown with the appropriate content was one thing museums had to think of during their closing period. But while they had to keep audiences warm, they also had to keep the exhibition items or artworks cool. Temperature, but also dust, humidity and light can have impact on centuries-old collection pieces. Though everyone was advised to #StayAtHome, you can’t just leave these exceptional works to their fate. So even with restricted resources and a limited workforce, conservation was top-of-mind during the lockdown. Museums wanted to make sure that the popular heritage exhibits are still in perfect condition when time was ripe to be showcased again to visitors.
For a lot of big national museums in Europe and the US, this is the first time they had to close for this length of time since the Second World War. Which makes reopening perhaps even more complicated, especially when it comes to infrastructure maintenance and facilities. You could compare it with leaving your car untouched on your driveway for a long period. It’s not a given that everything will work flawlessly again, when restarting. “Before we can reopen, we need our estate teams to go in to recommission the water systems and the power systems, and our ICT department must recommission the networks. But you have to know that some parts of our water system are hundreds of years old. When restarting, small leakages and defects will be inevitable,” says Dave Patten from The Science Museum in London. “We have a fairly major task, just to get to the point to let people in. And then we still need to evaluate and rethink the exhibitions, because it’s unlikely all of them will be able to continue in their current form.”
Theatre of hygienic display
Although a welcome diversion of the modern rat race for some, most of us are tired by now of being confined. “People are yearning for human interaction without digital devices as intermediary. But there’s also a constant lingering fear of contamination,” says Hilary McVicker, Communicatrix at The Eluminati. So one of the most challenging dilemmas for visitor attractions in a post-covid world will be to manage the balance between, on the one hand, the urge to share non-virtual experiences, and on the other hand some kind of subconscious agoraphobia people have coming out of this period. “Given enough money and resources, we can make museums safe,” adds Patten. “A bigger issue is the public perception of safety. Before, all this cleaning used to be done behind the scenes; but now people want to see cleaning happening before their eyes. It’s almost a theater of hygienic to build people’s confidence and offer a safe space.”
We’ll be back
In a recent special session of the AAM Virtual Annual Meeting, Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian, reminded us that “cultural institutions like [museums] [are] better suited than most to define reality and to give hope.” “At that time, he was referring to the social unrest after recent incidents in the United States. But I believe it also applies to the current health crisis. It’s a moment of real potential for museums to provide what we need as a society,” concludes McVicker on a philosophical note.
It might be challenging, but in the end, the hyped new normal will just become the normal normal. Things will pick up again. And with the right flexibility, creativity and resilience, the museum industry has the potential to overcome these disruptive times. And just like the protagonist of that famous science fiction film from the eighties said: We’ll be back!
In our next blogpost, we’ll be discussing how technology can support these new covid-proof museum experiences. Stay tuned!
Arnold van de Water is partner at Factorr, a creative consultancy agency, founded in 2005, that provides global services in Strategy, Spatial Concepts, and Transformations. In addition, Arnold is acting as general manager of the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience for the Van Gogh Museum. With over 15 years of experience in the arts and culture and touring exhibitions sectors, Arnold believes in using technology to create more personalized experiences and immersive storytelling.
Dave Patten is Head of New Media at The Science Museum, London, where his role includes managing all aspects of new media and AV, from conceptual design, prototyping and production to project managing external developers and production companies. He has a background in electronics and computer science, and has worked at the Science Museum for over 30 years, developing exhibitions and leading development teams. Dave Patten runs the Science Museum Groups Digital Lab Initiative which experiments in emerging technologies and visitor experiences.
Global thought leader, speaker, creative strategist, founder and director of Molten Immersive Art, Dorothy Di Stefano leads a collective of experiential artists who create large-scale, site-specific, digital immersive experiences. As an ambassador and consultant for the arts and with 20 years' experience, Dorothy sits on many cultural committees and is the International Partner representing Australia in the Global Startup Leaders committee of the World Business Angels Investment Forum (WBAF).Awarded LinkedIn's Top Voice for 2019, Dorothy has a worldwide following on this platform which she uses to highlight the importance and impact of art on our world and to showcase global artists to a business-focused community.
Hilary McVicker is Communicatrix at The Elumenati – a title that would translate to VP of Sales and Marketing at most companies. The Elumenati are thought leaders in the field of immersive projection design, creating innovative applications in education, enterprise and entertainment. Partners and clients range from NASA and NOAA to Dreamworks and Deloitte. Hilary has managed collaborative projects for The Elumenati with leading museums from the California Academy of Sciences to the American Museum of Natural History, with a focus on incorporating technology to create transformative learning experiences.