Museums must think about what it truly means to be essential - Museums Association

Museums must think about what it truly means to be essential

The sector has much to learn from how places of worship have served their communities during lockdown
Covid-19
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Hassan Vawda
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During the first lockdown, I observed the differences in the activities of museums and places of worship. Broadly speaking, most museums furloughed lots of their staff and continued to engage people largely in the digital space.

Yet places of worship and faith communities generally continued activity despite closed buildings. They activated their well-formed informal and formal networks of work in supporting communities and society to striking effect. It was interesting to see the real "temples" step-up activity while the self-defined "temples of the secular" struggled to find the same trajectory of utilising resources to serve society best in this time of pandemic.

As society slowly reopened, museums did incredibly well to safely welcome back the public, with reduced numbers and well-managed spaces. The new quieter museum was a real blessing for many people as a place to go to contemplate, to see, to learn and to engage.

Yet the many positives that began to highlight the much-needed benefit of museums were seemingly in the background. What was foregrounded was the survival of the museum and the arts: the redundancies, the cuts, the uncertainty for the future.

An early Art Fund report checking the temperature of museum worries highlighted the real fear for the future – fear about being sustainable and about it being a long time before audiences returned to museums in the numbers that they used to. The pandemic has shown the fragile economic spine of the museum sector, and the reliance on income generation and outsourcing.

The immediate responses of faith communities and places of worship to the pandemic were documented by the All-Party Parliamentary Group commissioned report Keeping the Faith. This showed the huge contribution that has been made in social and civic work, particularly noting the increase in collaborative activity with local authorities. Activity and networks have arguably become even stronger, seen as more essential by wider civic society.

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It was no surprise to me, then, that with the latest restrictions announced in December and the new lockdown in January, places of worship were no longer treated the same as museums. They were not only allowed to remain open during Tier 3 in England, but even in the national lockdown they were exempt from formal restrictions, allowing each space to decide for itself whether to close or remain open in a Covid-safe way.

It made me think about the past few decades in which the museum sector has repeatedly bolstered its credentials in being "essential" to society – to communities, to wellbeing, to learning and every other social and civic policy note that was in trend in various government agendas.

With the focus on recovery and investing in the revival of museum spaces in the uncertain post-pandemic environment being the leading discourse, what happened to the ideas of essentialising museums in the context of wider society, serving all the purposes as above? Was the "essential to society" discourse just an alignment with various policy agendas to attempt to bolster government funding for our sectors in the ever-privatised funding space?

I think we can look at the differing approaches to dealing with restrictions between places of worship and our museums, between the temples of belief and the temples of the secular, and think about what it truly means to be essential to people's lives and civic society.

Hassan Vawda has worked within the intersection of communities, artistic risk and culture as a practitioner within local and grassroots organisations as well as with major public institutions. In 2017 he was awarded an Aziz Foundation scholarship to develop ideas, trial projects and complete an MA in anthropology and community development (Goldsmiths, University of London) around inclusion/exclusion within the cultural sector and ways of connecting with faith communities.

Vawda is currently undertaking a collaborative doctorate between Tate and Goldsmiths, looking at how religion is manifested in the art museum, the perceptions of secularism embedded in the museum and how Muslims in Britain are considered by art museums. @hassanevawda

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