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. Now, these museums are reopening.
With news coming in on the gradual reopening of museums and exhibitions, the Barco team was 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 into how 2020 has pushed the boundaries for museums.
The experts that contributed to this discussion are Arnold van de Water, partner at Factorr and general manager of the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience for the Van Gogh Museum; Dave Patten, head of new media at The Science Museum, London; global thought leader, speaker, creative strategist, founder and director of Molten
Immersive Art, Dorothy Di Stefano and Hilary McVicker, communicatrix at The Elumenati.
In this first of a series of blog posts based on those conversations, we’ll share their thoughts on how museums will reopen. Because there’s more to restarting a museum than just flinging the doors open again and letting visitors flood in.
Conservation during lockdown
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 an impact on centuries-old collection pieces. Though everyone was advised to #StayAtHome, museums could not 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 need to make sure that popular heritage exhibits are still in perfect condition when the time is ripe to showcase these once again to visitors upon reopening.
Reopening museum facilities
For a lot of big national museums in Europe and the US, this was the first time that they had to close for this length of time since the Second World War. So, this 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,” says Patten.
“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. 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 hygiene
It may be a welcome diversion from the modern rat race for some. But most of us are now fed up of being stuck indoors.
“People are yearning for human interaction without digital devices as an intermediary. But there’s also a constant lingering fear of contamination,” says McVicker.
Before, all this cleaning used to be done behind the scenes; but now people want to see cleaning happening before their eyes
On reopening, one of the most challenging dilemmas for visitor attractions such as museums in a post-pandemic 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 theatre of hygiene, to build people’s confidence and offer a safe space.”
Museums reopening: 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,” says McVicker. “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.”
Reopening museums 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 the next blog post, the Barco team will be discussing how technology can support these new COVID-proof museum experiences. Stay tuned!