The best of times, the worst of times

Ken Arnold, 29.04.2020
After the pandemic, can museums help reinvent social closeness or will they be seen as a pre-corona indulgence?
The first in a series of reflections from across the sector on how the Covid-19 pandemic will change museums

I wonder, typing this in my locked-down state, how many museums around the world are shut today. Never have there been fewer visitors. I’ve spent my working life in them; and as I begin to contemplate what they might be like when their doors reopen, I find myself pulled towards two very different visions of the future. Will their public role become more important and popular than ever; or might they be eclipsed as a pre-corona indulgence?

Some very big practical and financial questions will, of course, hang over them when the cultural world does begin to turn again. But it’s also likely that public behaviour and cultural appetites will have shifted. This is what fills my dreams, and my nightmares.

It will be the best of times: maybe the clearest lesson to emerge from our experiences of physical distancing will be that social gatherings are an essential centrepiece of meaningful lives. Reopened museums and galleries will be trusted institutions in which to remind ourselves of that.

Tentatively at first, people will gradually be drawn in greater and greater numbers to spaces where they can be in company, next to strangers, sharing a similar experience. They will become symbols of the reinvention of social closeness.

Most people, particularly the young it turns out, will relish a release from the virtual overload of zoom-employment and, after supper, social lives negotiated through the same equipment. Stepping into museums, first-time, as well as veteran, visitors will willingly abandon their mobile equipment at the entrances – a post-Covid innovation.

They will eagerly seek out the stickier, slower and less distracting experiences on offer: looking at, learning, thinking and talking about stubbornly unmovable things, feeling their gravitas. Among many, it will reinforce a growing realisation they recall from before Coronavirus, that we seemed already to be making ourselves sick and stupid with relentless waves of new technology.

And at a subtler level, gallery audiences will increasingly arrive with big questions about meanings and values that have crammed their minds while cloistered at home. A close encounter with a sculpture or installation, a guided historical tour, a multi-perspective debate about dying well: these museum experiences will reassert themselves as irreplaceable opportunities to enhance enthusiasm and wellbeing.

Increasing numbers will turn to museums, and other public cultural activities as a viable alternative to relentless worries about the future, and those feelings of guilt that rush in when not trying to make it better. Visitors will be grateful for the opportunities offered by museums to be interested, thoughtful, playfully engaged without purpose or goal.

Or, maybe not.

It will be the worst of times: maybe months of learning to treat all but our nearest and dearest as potential grim reapers will instead make places where people gather permanent sources of anxiety. Museums and galleries will carefully curate upbeat programming, and relaunch with optimistic marketing.

And at first a few braver souls will try them out. But the difficult to shake habits of two-meter-queuing in enclosed spades will blunt people's willingness to spend time getting up close to exhibits. And new safely-distanced, semi-outdoor events, produced by canny cultural innovators, will prove too much competition.

And actually, on reflection, even the most techno-innocent or phobic citizens will recall from lock-down times that much, indeed most, of life was pretty effectively conducted from home behind glass. Gatherings of sometimes quite large groups effectively did come together online, all able to attend the same points of interest, simultaneously imbued with a modicum of shared atmosphere.

To survive, curators and museum makers will increasingly think online first, realising that resources required to maintain buildings and collections can efficiently be diverted to digital content. Running these slimline, agile cultural offers will be cheaper; and sometimes they will reach far larger, but also crucially broader, more inclusive audiences.

Sure, sentimentality will enable some museums to keep struggling along for decades. But the laziness of short attention spans, and a clamour for everything publicly supported to have a direct relevance, along with some preconsidered utility, will gradually push through the nostalgia associated with those baggier pre-corona institutions. Fittingly maybe, 300 years after its founding, the British Museum will be the last permanently to close its doors in 2053.

Ken Arnold is the director of the Medical Museion, Copenhagen University (CBMR), and a creative director at Wellcome, where his last international project Contagious Cities concerned epidemics


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