One of the artifacts on the grounds of the National Museum in Damascus
One of the artifacts on the grounds of the National Museum in Damascus

The recent cataclysmic year 2020 has been a true test of our resilience, and certainly some of the most challenging of our lives and career. As many buildings temporarily closed its doors, like so many museum and cultural institutions around the world, which lead to concerned about the future, but it is also an overwhelming sense of solidarity, knowing that we are all in this together. I believe that art and culture play a crucial role in seeing us through these tough times. I am not alone in this belief but the entire museum and cultural community has jumped into action to keep bringing art into our lives.  Museums have launched social media campaigns, drawing on their collections for moments of inspiration, hope, and even a touch of relief through humor. Not only this, art fairs also have opened virtual showrooms, even artists have started digital community projects, musicians have live streaming concerts from their living rooms, our educators and instructors have brought art classes online and the list continues. So, this very incredible outpouring has proven that human creativity is perhaps the most resilient in times of crisis. Even as we face unprecedented challenges and fears in this century, the show must, and will, go on.

  1. Challenges face by museums during pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought new kinds of challenges to museums and cultural institutions. The crisis has prompted hand-wringing and self-reflection among some museum professionals. Several questions museums faced such as, ‘How can museums remain relevant if people can’t visit them?’, ‘Can exhibitions which take years to plan and execute be transferred to the digital realm to keep museums open virtually?’, ‘How formerly touch-interactives can be made touchless?’, and ‘How free flow galleries can be converted into directional paths?’. This global pandemic crisis has raised a raft of questions for museums, especially if museums have to remain shut then ‘How best museums can evolve to reflect the current situation?’, and ‘What their role might be post Covid-19?’. There are also problems like ‘Who can a museum serve if their only instance is an online version?’. These are the crucial questions, and all of them fall within the remit of a museum’s role in a community. Therefore, the current crisis has forced museums to consider questions that have been emergent in this current situation and if museums can respond to them, might not only help museums to remain firm in front of any storm but also lead to emerge stronger and more resilient.

  1. UNESCO report on museums around the world in Covid-19

UNESCO launched a new report on museums around the world in the face of Covid-19. It comprises an international survey targeting museums, culture professionals, and member states. It was found that no museum in the world has escaped uncertainty and questions of survival due to the pandemic’s closures and plunges in revenue. The study reveals that the number of museums is estimated at around 95,000 in 2020, which represents a 60% increase compared to 2012. They are, however, very unevenly distributed across the globe. Museums have been particularly affected by the pandemic, as 90% of them closed their doors during the crisis and, according to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), more than 10% may never reopen. Facing the crisis, museums acted quickly to develop their presence on the Internet. However, the digital divide is seen to be more evident than ever. It is recorded that only 5% of museums in Africa and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) were able to propose online content.

  1. Art and museums in times of crisis

There is never been a time in history when people stop to cogitate and contemplate upon the human condition in times of hardship, we have often seen incredible examples of creativity and expression. When the world becomes dark, chaotic, and scary, people turn to art, whether it is the work of artists like ‘Chagall’ in the years that followed ‘Nazi Oppression’, or the graphic novels of the ‘Art Spiegelman’ after ‘9/11 attack’. We know that grief and tragedy are recurring themes that demand contemplation. A pandemic is a very different scenario to a global war or a terrorist attack, but what the most remarkable about this present time in history is the ‘immediacy of connection’ and the ‘reach of art delivered online’. Consequently, this time of global crisis prompted us to view art in a completely new way. As we search for inspiration to lighten our days, the digital world opens up to us, offering moments of serendipity, curiosities, learning, and exchanges that we may not have discovered before. These new circumstances make us think of ‘Kairos’, the Ancient Greek concept of time that speaks of an opportune or hoodwink moment. Though we cannot physically attend cultural spaces, we can still seize this moment to find art that can heal us, and in doing so, we can become the curators of our own experience.

It is found that artists and museums alike have been using creative methods to explore the various consequences of the Covid-19 crisis in their work and exhibitions. One of the most well-documented examples of this has been the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Pandemic Objects Exhibition’ in London. It was an online series, analyzing the unremarkable items that have taken on new meaning over the course of the pandemic. Such as items from ‘Toilet rolls’ to ‘Sourdough bread’, the collection succeeds in capturing the scale and the strangeness of the crisis so far. Similarly, the ‘Historical Museum of Urahoro’ in Japan invited their people to contribute objects that represent their experience of the pandemic. They design a small digital exhibition which included ‘Takeaway menus’, ‘Remote learning instructions’, Face masks, ‘Printouts of festival cancellation emails’, and even ‘Remote instructions for attending a funeral’. The final result of this online exhibition was a powerful and emotional commentary on the global impact of the Coronavirus.

4. Museums adapting to new scenario

As Covid-19 loosens its grip over nations, museums and art galleries are gradually and cautiously awakening to a new reality. It becomes indispensable to understand how these places, which are custodians of relics of our past, present, and maybe future, need to adapt to the new scenario and still be relevant. Generally, a visit to a museum is found to be educational, inspiring, calming, or encouraging. Museums bring people together, expand our horizons, teach us about the world, and provide moments of peaceful reflection. But at a time when our nation is facing a pandemic and community needs have abruptly changed, museums have quickly adapted to continue serving their communities, even their physical locations were closed down. Museums curators have been required to ‘retool’, ‘rebrand’ and ‘rethink’ their roles. The things which might have been physical has become digital during this time of crisis.  Museums of all kinds have started offering free online learning resources, access to their digital collections, virtual tours, and online exhibits. They are continuously striving for all invaluable opportunities to educate and connect people across the world.

  1. The pandemic act as a creative catalyst for museums: A positive outlook

Covid-19 acts as the catalyst for transformation across many aspects of society. Whether it is the adoption of technology for remote work, the embracing of online shopping, or the evolution of virtual classrooms, we have found a way to function and connect at a time when face-to-face interaction must be kept to a minimum rate. So, therefore, one can say, as much as the pandemic has brought society to a standstill, it has also accelerated some of the trends particularly in the digital space such as ‘Cashless transactions’, ‘Video calling’,  Work from home’ and many more. And this has been found more evident in the museum and cultural sectors. In 2020, museums had to find new ways to stay relevant and maintain a role in the public consciousness at a time of global crisis. Digitization has been evident within many institutions over recent years but Covid-19 has certainly forced all of them for a gradual approach to this process without any impediment. During this time of crisis, museums have been acknowledging the monumental impact of Covid-19 through collecting the creative work that has been made during this tough time. According to the international associations and committees of museums, the progress of five years is seen to be condensed into twelve months, which is both a sign of the challenges that have presented themselves and a credit to those institutions that have shown a willingness to pivot quickly.

  1. The Future of Museums: Post- Covid-19

Traditionally, museums have served their communities not only by providing access to culturally significant artifacts but also by engaging in scholarly activities.  In recent decades, museums have shifted away from research and instead began serving the public through education and entertainment which is also known as ‘Edutainment’. This shift in ‘visitor-oriented’ has provided some museums with additional revenue stemming from admissions, special events, and venue rentals. However, the recent Covid-19 pandemic has devastated these sources of revenue. ‘Stay-at-home’ orders and mandatory closures have left many museums to make difficult decisions. As museums overcome the short-term financial impact of Covid-19, they will face the challenges of operating in a post-pandemic future. This new environment may herald innovative economic models and change the way we think about museum design. The present situation also leads to the new idea of moving our arts and exhibitions outdoors. A group of museum developers, designers, and researchers gathered over the internet during lockdown to imagine a new way of thinking about the museum exhibition and created an ingenious concept known as “Free the Museum”.

The museums governing authorities like UNESCO, ICOM, can provide urgent support to the museums by providing appropriate policies, mobilizing cooperation to enable the museums to survive economically. All the stakeholders such as the government, employees, museum authorities, policymakers have to ensure working in a holistic approach so that the museums can survive in the pandemic situation as well as in the post-Covid-19. The role of museums in education, communication, research, heritage preservation, financial, and social is enormous. Thus, it is the responsibility of all of us to support the museums so that they can face the Covid-19 challenges.

Dr Fatma Faheem, Associated with Department of Museology,Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh


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