Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate
This year, on International Museum day (IMD), celebrated since 1977, we find most of our museums and cultural institutions shuttered to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though some museums and historic houses are slowly re-opening, and many have weathered the quarantine digitally, most institutions are still attempting to define what their in-house experience will be moving forward. Therefore, how do we define museums right now, much less in the future?
Before the pandemic, museums were defined as buildings which hold, in trust, objects of artistic, historical, or cultural value. Within these buildings, the objects are stored, exhibited, and interpreted for the public’s consumption. International Museum day raises awareness about how “museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among people” through their collections (ICOM, 2020). How can these institutions achieve these goals, however, when many of their diverse collections remain closed to the public?
To begin to answer this question, we museum professionals must admit that some institutions may not be able to reopen without assistance. If an institution does have to close, decisions will have to be made about how to handle the objects in their collection. Will they donate the objects to other museums or will they sell the objects off to private collectors? Will the objects go up for auction, possibly flooding the market with high-end, blue-chip artworks, for example? As a physical space to hold these objects for public appreciation, hopefully the objects will remain in public collections. Many have voiced the possibility of museums going completely online; while this is a novel idea, it is important to remember that physical museums are in place to hold physical objects. If the physical place is closed, those physical objects still have to be safeguarded to maintain their condition. For those institutions robust enough to re-open, the questions will depend on the nature of their collection. For more hands-on museums, like science and discovery museums, these questions demand more intricate solutions than, say, art museums that already promote a hands-off environment. Where before we used gaffers tape on the floor to keep people from getting too close to certain pieces of art, will we now use it to mark off proper physical distancing space? Either track an institution takes, it will take time and, more than likely, trial and error, to determine best practices.
Beyond making the initial decision of opening versus closing, there are a lot of smaller, intricate problems currently facing museums that drive that initial decision: Can we move our exhibitions online? Can all school programming be virtual? Will artist talks and lectures be done podcast-style, instead of in-person? Do we still need a physical museum space?
This last question is the one on many museum professional’s minds. Cultural institutions, historically averse to integrating new technologies, have risen to the occasion in the past few weeks and adapted their programming to the digital sphere. The New York Museum Educators Roundtable (NYCMER) annual conference was held virtually, which meant FWMoA educators were able to attend for the first time. Exhibition tours have gone virtual, and interacting with the collection has taken the form of patrons using household items to recreate famous artworks. “Object of the Day” tweets and Instagram posts of close-up views of well-known artworks, for the viewer to guess which whole artwork the piece belongs to, are other ways museums have kept their public engaged. Obviously we are still able to engage with our cultural past in a myriad of ways, but what educators place the most importance on is experiencing the “real” object, which can’t be done via screen.
Seeing an object “in real life” or, as renowned interpreter Freeman Tilden calls it, “the thing itself” and discussing it with a friend on a bench or in the café afterward cannot be replaced with a digital version. A digital version permits manipulation, an extended close-looking, and copies for multiple study and research. They do not, however, inspire the awe that an interaction with the real object does. A photo of a painting, no matter the pixels, does not instill the austerity of a large painting or the intricacy of an illuminated manuscript. Textures, reflection of lights, and the overall physicality of a work cannot be understood in a standard photo. Zoos, for example, inspire caring and conservation through interactions with the animals. One cares more when they’ve had an individual, personal encounter. This, more than anything, will ensure that the physical museum lives on; the digital museum can help us connect globally and across institutions, but is not intended to replace an actual, physical experience. The digital museum is an extension of the physical, as we have learned during this quarantine period as curators and educators have shared interpretations and resources online to help people connect without physically being in front of the object in question. As we begin to consider our future, museums need to remember their past and how they can use this time to move forward and ensure they are developing “mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among people” using their physical space and extended, digital space.
Think of it this way: a museum was, at its beginning, akin to a secret pirate cove. Beginning collectors, much like a pirate, gathered treasures from across the known world to take back to their secret pirate cove, or house. These subsequent “cabinets of curiosities’’, as we call them today, were held privately and thus opened to only select groups of family and friends. Secreted away for the acclaim of the collector, these treasures weren’t accumulated to inform but to entertain. These collectors gathered objects from disparate cultures through war, imperialism, and colonialism. Taken out of context and set to highlight their differences to the perceived Western intelligence, it wasn’t until recently that museums began acts of repatriation and acknowledgement through didactic text. In interpreting the true facts, opening the doors to cross-cultural experiences, inviting more diverse artists and artistic practices, and making proper use of their extended digital space, museums can accept their past while inviting in a new future. The engagement tactics we’ve learned over the past few months will help us restructure our programming for the better, as we learn to blend the old with the new and make our in-person, physical interactions stronger. For this reason we remain optimistic, despite our current global crisis, on International Museum day that museums will reopen their physical doors to their community while maintaining the newly digital doors; providing their audience with even better experiences than before.