What does the Covid-19 pandemic mean for Australian museums?

From adversity comes great opportunity, says Alec Coles
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Alec Coles
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On the night that the world recorded its worst night for new Covid-19 cases, Western Australia recorded three – each one, a quarantined traveller returning from overseas.
Mark McGowan, the premier of Western Australia, was receiving approval ratings of between 93% and 97% for his handling of the crisis. Community transmission in the state is virtually zero and Perth – for so long dogged with the unflattering tag of “world’s most isolated city” – is now celebrating that epithet.
That, pretty much, has been the Australian story. At the time of writing, every state and territory has been appearing to get on top of the virus (with the exception of Victoria, which is experiencing an alarming resurgence) and, while there is no room for complacency, across the whole of Australia, the 106 deaths from the 8,600 cases pales when compared with hotspots elsewhere.
As a result, states and territories are lifting their restrictions and most of the larger Australian museums and galleries reopened some weeks ago.
What will the pandemic mean for Australian museums in the future? It is a question that occupies me more than most, as we race towards the opening of the new Western Australian Museum in Perth, this coming November.
An AUD$400 million (about £235m) development, Covid-19 has caused us to rethink the interfaces with our many interactive exhibits; to contemplate our staff welcoming visitors to a “hyper-permeable” space from behind polycarbonate screens; and working out what we have to sacrifice from our recurrent budget to pay the increased cleaning bills.
These issues are no different to those facing any other major museum, or gallery, they are just brought into focus by the scale of our project and imminence of its completion.
For all the talk of new cleaning regimes and changing visitor behaviours (a recent survey in Australia suggested that most visitors want to come back, but are hesitant about “hands-on” interactive exhibits), it is the economic and geopolitical realities that may ultimately have the greatest impact on museums. large and small.
Australia has a great number of small museums, many of them funded either privately or by local government, and many of them voluntarily run. The economic impact of forced closure, no visitors and no income is already devastating, as it has been on the whole of the cultural sector. Many remote Aboriginal communities remain isolated due to the vulnerability of their residents.
The benefits of being a thinly populated “island continent” are plain to see. Close the ports and airports and you have eliminated the main source of infection. The consequence of this, however, in the months and years ahead, will be a dearth of overseas tourists.
Australia’s relative success, so far, at controlling the spread of the virus, owes much to the speed and effectiveness with which it closed its international borders. Having built an impressive and increasing tourism market in east Asia, it is soul-destroying to see the millions of potential visitors lost to us.
Those borders are not going to open any time soon, and, when they eventually do, how many people will have lost the urge to travel through busy airports and other transport hubs? How many will be able to afford the hiked airfares from the limited services provided by far fewer carriers?
Or, perhaps, international travel will emulate the manic scenes in British pubs on “Super Saturday”, with everyone be so desperate to escape the confines of their own country that they will reignite the flames of this smouldering market?
And speaking of smouldering, that word probably accurately describes the current relationship with one of our greatest trading partners, China. Australia’s involvement in the call for an investigation into the origin of the virus in China, combined with some risible xenophobia directed against Asian migrants, has caused the Chinese Government to warn its students not to study in Australia because of “racial incidents targeting people of Asian descent”.
Back home, just as in every other country in the world, public sector debt will soar and government spending will, understandably, be prioritised on health, education and policing. At a time when we need cultural content more than ever, public funding, at least, will be ever harder to secure.
There has been much focus on digital transformation and, ironically, the temporary closure of some museums has provided “space” (time and money), for many museums to increase and improve their digital content and reach. The Western Australian Museum’s website has never been richer: its social media presence never greater.
We have all been creating our Covid-19 collections, many of them digital, although you do wonder about the sustained public interest in a million social media posts about “How we adapted to Covid-19”.
I certainly do not hold with those who believe that, in a post-Covid world, digital experiences will replace actual ones. The argument about the negative impact of the digital revolution on visitation has been deployed many times before and, so far, has been seen to be spurious.
However, as we know, from adversity comes great opportunity. Covid-19 may be the spur for our sector to get its digital act together. Apart from anything else, it may help us manage our visitation better through more pre-bookings and organised events.
It may allow us to focus more meaningfully on our proximal audiences, and it may help us establish our museums at the heart of their respective communities, not just as safe places for unsafe ideas, but as safe places to be.
Alec Coles is the chief executive officer of the Western Australian Museum

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