The year 2020 was a difficult one for museums across the world, small or big, art museums or anthropological museums as the novel coronavirus threatened the very existence of museums as an institution. In order to help slow the transmission of the virus, all social and cultural gatherings were suspended and social distancing was encouraged. Paradoxically, museums are one of the few institutions that have always maintained distancing within their premises even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As most of us may have seen, on various occasions, many museums do not allow visitors to touch or stand very close to the artifacts and displays. There is a sign saying, please do not touch the objects in the display or stand too close. These are of course restricted to sensitive exhibits.
In an article recently published by ThePrint, the journalist and museum curator Rama Lakshmi (2020) asserted, “2020 was a do-over or die moment for museums” and the only way forward is in two words “digital age”. The year 2020 witnessed the transition of many museums online. For instance: British Museum, London; Guggenheim Museum, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum, India; and Odisha State Tribal Museum, India. Yet there are several museums in India and elsewhere that have been distanced and are actively struggling on going online. According to a study by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), 1 out of 8 museums across the globe has already been closed due to the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (see Cascone 2020: Artnet news). According to a UNESCO report, 90 per cent of museums worldwide have temporarily been closed, and “nearly 30 per cent of the 1600 international museums surveyed by the ICOM reported that they would close permanently” (ibid). Thus, the emergence of COVID-19 has been a threat to all museums and has raised several important questions regarding the future of museums. Not only has the pandemic raised questions on the role of museums i.e., if museums were to remain accessible from a distance via digital means, but also the role of the museum visitors i.e., if visitors were to only experience the museum remotely. In a situation such as this: how does one respond to this crisis? Let us first begin by understanding the wide-ranging responses by international museums to the threat imposed by COVID-19.
International museums have responded variedly to the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, most museums were temporarily closed and offered only virtual tours. As many museums reopen in 2021, the safety of visitors and staff has become imperative. According to Brendan Ciecko, founder and CEO of Cuseum, an American technology start-up that helps museums accelerate visitor engagement, “museums across the globe have implemented timed-ticketing, contactless payments, and virtual queuing to reduce crowds and physical contact, as well as introduced mobile tools to encourage social distancing and eliminate printed maps and brochures” (Bhura 2020: TheWeek). This is implemented to reduce the distance between museums and visitors. There are technological solutions too that are being implemented by many museums across the globe in order to ensure social distancing of visitors and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. For instance, touch-less interfaces, gesture-based tools, and “cleaning devices based on ultraviolet light technology that reduces the spread of bacteria on surfaces and inactive viruses similar to COVID-19” (see Blooloop). However, these strategies can only be executed by museums with access to significant resources and labour power.
Small and independent museums do not have the resources to undergo radical changes neither in their presentation nor in their security measures. At best, small museums can adapt their curatorial style based on the present scenario and give the visitor a sense of how they have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for that, they must ensure their financial survival first. In order to respond to the present crisis, one must acknowledge this divide that has expanded the distance between small and big museums. Therefore, I argue that we must not imagine museums as physical spaces of cultural burial. Rather, we must continue to work towards the reach of museums as space collectively shapes our being. As the writer Arundhati Roy eloquently emphasizes, one must see the “pandemic as a portal” in order to imagine their respective roles in the post-pandemic world (2020: Financial Times). The digital experience, after all, cannot quite effectively fill in the gap or replace the physical experience of being in a museum.
As an AIF Clinton Fellow (2020-2021), I am actively working on re-imagining some of the ways in which we can conceptualize strategies for Vaacha – Museum of Voice in Tejgadh, Gujarat to emerge stronger in the post-pandemic world. We are working on developing a new website that would consist of a digital catalogue of the museum in order for the visitors to get a sense of the museum from a distance. We are also systematically studying some of the measures implemented by other indigenous museums in India and abroad to deal with the COVID crisis. COVID-19 pandemic has indeed changed the ways museums are viewed and experienced (see Billock 2020: Smithsonian Magazine). However, it is up to us how we want to deal with the distance and re-imagine the opening of museums in the post-pandemic world.
Bhura, Sneha. (2020). “COVID-19 and ‘contactless future’ of the art world”. The Week, May 28. Accessed at: https://www.theweek.in/leisure/society/2020/05/28/covid-19-and-contactless-future-of-the-art-world.html
Billock, Jennifer. (2020). “How Will Covid-19 Change the Way Museums Are Built?” Smithsonian Magazine, September 16. Accessed at: smithsonianmag.com/travel/how-will-covid-19-change-way-future-museums-are-built-180975022.
Blooloop. (2020). “Please Don’t Touch: The Rise of Coronaproof Museum Technology”. Accessed at: https://blooloop.com/museum/opinion/post-covid-museum-technology.
Cascone, Sarah. (2020). “One in Eight Museums Worldwide May Never Reopen, According to the International Council of Museums”. Artnet News, May 27. Accessed at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/unesco-icom-museums-report-1866558
Lakshmi, Rama. (2020). “2020 Was a Do-Over or Die Moment for Museums. But There’s a New Divide Now”. The Print, December 27. Accessed at: https://theprint.in/opinion/2020-was-a-do-over-or-die-moment-for-museums-but-theres-a-new-divide-now/573212.
Roy, Arundhati. (2020). “The Pandemic Is a Portal”. Financial Times, April 3. Accessed here: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca