On 11 March 2020 WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared that COVID-19 had to be characterized as a pandemic. Within days after this announcement, museums in cities around the world had to shut their doors to the public. They thereby had to retreat from one of their core purposes, which is to display artefacts of cultural, historical, artistic or scientific significance and, by doing so, educate the public. This extraordinary situation of crisis caused both anxiety about the future but equally provided the possibility for self-reflection and innovation. Similar to many other sectors, museums had to manage the impacts of the pandemic on several levels of their daily business. The absence of visitors did not only disrupt and even threaten museums financially, in matters of employment or scheduling-wise, but it posed an even deeper question of societal relevance and self-definition. When this is over, will culture still be important?
After the shock of the shutdown was digested, museums were quick to act and there was a noticeable increase of online activity. As ‘storehouses of knowledge’, many museums resorted to other means of communication to make their content accessible and to keep up public interaction. To a large extend, this pandemic has functioned as a motor for the digitalization of art museums.
Numerous institutions and scholars such as the UNESCO or ICOM(The International Council of Museums) have since conducted world-wide surveys and written reports on the impact of the pandemic on museums. By compiling data through crowdsourcing, Chiara Zuanni and Sabrina Melcher from the University of Graz developed an interactive map that collects digital activities promoted by museums during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those digital initiatives is the social media platform Instagram. Incorporating multiple tools of photography, video, live broadcasting, text and short-term “storying”, this platform offers a lot of opportunities for museums to engage with their home-bound audience.
People could engage with exhibition photos or the showcasing of individual artworks. Instagram also offered the opportunity to give a behind the scenes view of restoration workers which often remains unseen during a usual museum visit. During live streaming events, people from around the world could take part in virtual collection tours, curator talks or artist’s interviews. Even educational material was made accessible through online quizzes on Instastories, color-in images modeled after artworks or challenges to re-create famous artworks which were paired with hashtags like #MetAnywhere, #GettyMuseumChallenge, #tussenkunstenquarantaine, or #artchallenge. Though physically apart, museums tried to activate their viewers virtually.
Despite attempts of re-opening in the late summer months of 2020 which were shaped by strict hygienic concepts, spiking infection rates led many museums to re-close again in November. The pandemic’s impact on future digital practices within museum work remains yet unclear. Although these virtual actions have potentially reached an audience on a more global scale, they should remain additional medial support surrounding and not replacing the experience of standing in front of a painting or sculpture on site. As the manifold contributions to virtual museum content showed, art can give hope and relief in times of uncertainty and disruption. The importance of cultural institutions and their crucial task of conserving human heritage should therefore not be questioned.