Opportunities for Museums in the Post-COVID-19 Era

(Translation of the same text that has been published in Spanish)
At a time like the present, to talk of opportunities may seem naïve, even frivolous, but in the case of museums, it isn’t.

The COVID-19 Crisis — as the Great Recession of 2008 did and, to an extent, continues to do — has acted like a developer, revealing the complicated situation in which contemporary museums have been immersed for some time, in many different aspects. If we accept this premise, it is clear that a huge opportunity has now emerged for things to be reviewed to finally address an exciting, collective, all-encompassing rethink. It would be a great shame to miss this golden opportunity and foolishly wait for the storm to pass to continue doing the same as always.

This article aims to outline some ideas to envision this rethink. It doesn’t aim to be a recipe book — recipes often turn out wrong even in the best kitchens — nor does it suggest a radical review of anything — gradual changes tend to be much more effective than radical ones —, and even if it appears to be poetry, it strives to be everything but.

Focus, also, on strategic management. One basic aspect of contemporary organisations consists of maintaining a suitable balance between the two fundamental bases of operation: executive management and strategic management. In this regard, museums suffer shortcomings that they share with most of the cultural sector and with many third sector organisations: difficulties with strategic planning. The urge of museums to do things right now tends to impose on other considerations; what is urgent is often prioritised above what is important and often the decision is to rush ahead, referring to what others do rather than to their own visions. These tend to be conspicuous by their absence because their development has not been worked on regularly, in other words, strategically. Although out of necessity, the COVID-19 Crisis has caused a change in the amount of time dedicated to strategic management. This is an asset that should be included as a basic and everyday activity of contemporary museums and its operational mainstay lies in the systematic evaluation of its real social impact.

Consider how each museum operates and pursue the most sustainable objectives. Expanding on the previous point, if we accept that the contemporary museum of today is another means of communication with endemic communication resources that form its own language (museographic language), the next thing that should be considered is what it seeks to communicate and to what end. Therefore, museums — and again, understood as another means of communication — could dedicate their efforts to many communicative purposes, all of which are legitimate. They could promote tourism for a specific region or communicate the services, products and values of a specific brand, as is the case of corporate museums. Either way, their main function must be educational, in the broadest sense of the term, becoming an element of transformation in society, acquiring huge potential and the ability to have an impact. Unlike other types of museums that live off their visitors and who are now encountering serious problems, transformative museums live for their visitors and will now discover nothing but opportunities.

Rethinking, now more than ever, the core business of contemporary museums. Again, understanding contemporary museums as a means of communication, their endemic resources — what they could offer compared to other communication channels — must be suitably identified. Only by committing to the exploration of these communication spaces, characteristic and distinctive of the museographic language, and at the same time avoiding repeating what other types of languages offer in their spaces, can contemporary museums hold the position they deserve in society, one which is certainly already reserved for them.

The necessarily smaller capacities allow ideal museum visitor numbers to be explored, guaranteeing the museum experience. Two years ago, as a result of the unprecedented visitor numbers published by the Louvre for 2018 (10.8 million), a reconsideration of museum visitor capacities came under the spotlight when the aim is to offer a unique intellectual experience. This overcrowding phenomenon is not only evident in the most important museums but is also a problem in other types of museums which, despite not having large annual numbers of visitors, do face this type of problem at specific times of the day or year. Ironically, a couple of years later, the problem on the table appears to be the opposite…

However, these capacities that are now necessarily smaller could have the effect of strengthening the valuable qualitative — not quantitative — aspects on which the museum experience is based, as more artisanal and less industrial formats will be developed. In this regard, now is the chance for different projects and proposals to thrive, ones that were relevant from a museum experience viewpoint but which had previously been ruled out given that larger quantitative result ratios were required of them. Now, certain museums with legitimate objectives aimed at quantitative results may suffer but those that follow strategies dedicated to the qualitative and educational social impact will find in these new reduced visitor capacities a huge opportunity to improve their management.

Museums could become part of the range of possibilities for people who until now didn’t take them into account. If properly tapped into, the economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic could have a positive effect on museums, in so far as people will have fewer resources to dedicate their free time to other things. Dynamics of this type were already observed in the cultural sector during the Great Recession of 2008, such as certain increases in the use of libraries.

To take advantage of this timely effect, objectives of social transformation and approaching the community must take precedence over the frequent quantitative proposals based on visitor numbers — basically tourists —. Likewise, foreseeable difficulties for the development of tourism — which had reached extremes in some museums — are an opportunity for museums to work with their closest communities, redirecting their management to the needs of their environment and searching for affinities with local society. Once again, museums must analyse their new situation in depth to discover what experience they are providing, placing dialogue and conversation at the centre of their management.

Limitations on “touching” will finally force a rethink of museum interactivity, as a much wider and complex phenomenon than “touching for touching’s sake”, which it had become in many cases. Museum interactivity isn’t only about touching (handling), it requires active thinking (reflection) and emotions (feelings), with conversation (dialogue) as the catalyst. If we have to think of slogans for museums, the clichéd please do touch, may perhaps finally be complemented by others like please do think, please do feel or please do discuss, at least in museums that choose to focus on an unmistakeably transformative and educational objective.

Many areas of daily life will opt for virtual resources from now on, like teleworking, video meetings and online shopping. The language of museums has its basic endemic communication resources in the tangibility of the objects and phenomena. This is why it is said that what is in the museum is presented and not represented. Without sacrificing the current situation of digitalising what is necessary — the wheat will have to be separated from the chaff —, the museographic language, through the exhibition, with this tangibility as a basic and distinguishing asset, will now emerge as a means of communication that is more original and even alternative, as well as particularly necessary, as highlighted by The Transformative Museum collective in the recent article in Spanish Después de la crisis del coronavirus… ¿los museos volverán a abrir? [After the COVID-19 Crisis… Will Museums Reopen?].

Although initially, interpersonal relationships will be at a disadvantage due to health measures, museums, as spaces for sharing and discussing and anticipating the new reduced visitor capacities, could provide an incredibly interesting framework for a society with fewer options in terms of interpersonal relations.

The review (although forced) of certain classic visitor management schemes will leave room for museum innovation and research, developing museum R&D&i. For example, class groups have become a very restricted and stale format for school visits. This visitor type, which makes up a significant part of the public for most museums and implies a high degree of complexity for the museum experience, could now discover new approaches and ideas. Another visitor type is families, who would become more important as a visitor unit because less preventive health measures are likely required among its members. This opens up a huge opportunity for both museums and families.

Although it may seem naïve, from now on one would expect a greater sensitivity towards the power of science, knowledge and culture in general. In the fight against COVID-19 the importance of developing knowledge — in the most general and global sense possible — has become clear; this in the context of formal training that is often too limited by the subjects and focused on solutionism. In the words of Jorge Wagensberg, applicable to all knowledge, not only to science, “Some politicians still don’t understand that the wealthiest countries don’t do science because they have money but have money because they do science”.

The growing interest in science has become evident in the present environment, in which scientists are continuously being mentioned. This might be the perfect moment to revive museum projects dedicated to disseminating what the work of scientists is like. It is also worth noting that this opportunity is open to approaches in all types of museums, not only science museums.

The relationship between the current health crisis and the imbalance in the environment, climate change and the effect of human activity on nature will not go unnoticed by society. This issue is creating greater environmental awareness and a significant appreciation of ecology and the origins of what we eat and the nature that surrounds us. Museums have been informing and raising the alarm about the ecological crisis for decades and the current situation only reaffirms their communication, educational and transformative role.

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