Hope in a time of coronavirus - Museums Association

Hope in a time of coronavirus

Our amazing museums have given me light amid the gloom of an impossibly difficult year
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Sharon Heal

Sometimes you just have to name it: 2020 has been a bit of a crap year. It has been a challenge for us all, for our communities, for our museums and for society. It is difficult to see any silver linings when the outlook is so bleak – the dance of closing, reopening, and closing our museums again has been exhausting and it’s not over yet.

But it has been truly inspiring to see how people who work in museums have rallied, faced up to the challenges and supported each other. When we’ve felt low, and exasperated, we have stood by each other and checked in via our newly discovered online platforms. We’ve shared tips and tricks, we’ve quizzed together and laughed together at the awkwardness of virtual socialising.

At the Museums Association, we’ve worked hard to make a strong case for investment in museums across the UK, and to deliver the workforce support, content and funding you need. We’ve provided mentoring and online training and webinars, and we’ve discussed everything from racism and museums to the wisdom of elders.

Hopefully over the festive period we will all have chance to rest, pause and reflect so that next year we can build on what we’ve learnt.

If we didn’t know it already, this year has taught us that it’s people that make museums; we need our staff, our volunteers, our trustees, our freelancers and of course our communities.

We’ve all had to take and face tough decisions and there will be more to come – but understanding why we’re here and our relevance now, and our potential in the future, is the only way we will find a way through this crisis.


Of course Covid-19 is not the only thing that has shaken our view of the world; the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated through society and we must act on the commitments to anti-racism that we made in the summer.

The climate crisis has not gone away and as we head towards COP26 in Glasgow next year, museums are uniquely positioned to use our collections and spaces to act practically with our communities.

Our Code of Ethics is part of our value system and Covid-19 has raised many ethical questions, including who has access to our online offer and how we support those on the wrong side of the digital divide.  We also need to think about how we can collect with our communities, with sensitivity and respect.

At one of our members meeting this year I asked what more we can do to support you - one of the answers that came back was “you can give us hope”.

But where does hope come from when we’re trying to navigate impossibly choppy waters?

Hope can come from our collections - one of the few exhibitions I saw over the summer was Refugees at the Imperial War Museum. The three component parts, Forced to Flee, Life in Camp and A Face to Open Doors, are a transformational combination of rigorous research, objects, stories and immersive experiences. It is hard-hitting, emotional and could only happen in a museum.


Hope can also come from what we offer as respite from a ravaged world. When I visited St Fagans on a beautiful late summer’s day and walked through the woods and talked to staff, I could see and hear the impact that being back in those beautiful spaces was having on them and their visitors.

Hope can come from what we do in the face of an emergency; the amazing work of the Museum of Homelessness that shifted its whole operation to deliver hot meals to those in need during lockdown, as well as campaigning for changes in government policy, has been a beacon during the dark days of uncertainty.  

And hope can come from our dogged persistence to be there for our communities. Staff at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds have been desperate to reopen to their community after a capital project but have been thwarted by lockdowns and the vagaries of the tier system. It’s a brilliant museum in a part of Leeds that has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Last week it finally opened its doors as a vaccination centre. And that to me is the definition of hope.

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