Around the world, museums and the communities they serve are feeling the impact of COVID-19, as populations are requested to stay home and large gatherings are prohibited.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, museum institutions large and small, public and private, have had to close their doors, most of them for a foreseeable future. An estimated 90% of the world’s approximately 60,000 museums are facing full, partial or eventual closure. Regardless of size, location or status, museums are facing tough challenges, including protecting their collections, ensuring that staff are safe and healthy, dealing with financial issues, and staying engaged with their public. They are contributing to our society, proposing innovative ideas and inspiring everyone in this difficult and uncertain time.
Finding creative ways to serve the public
Culture never stops, and it is crucial that museums keep going too, especially in the face of COVID-19. “Museums are more than just places where humanity’s heritage is preserved and promoted”, noted Ernesto Ottone R., Assistant Director-General for Culture of UNESCO. “They are also key spaces of education, inspiration and dialogue. At a time when billions of people around the world are separated from one another, museums can bring us together”. . Not surprisingly, we are seeing museums and the communities they serve become more resilient, resourceful and innovative. From virtual visits to Facebook and Instagram content, from podcasts to open access online platforms, museums and cultural institutions are getting creative as they cope with this unprecedented situation. Some museum professionals shared with UNESCO how they are facing this difficult time.
"COVID-19 is a pandemic affecting everyone. In order to contribute to reducing the spread, the Livingstone Museum is closed but active via Facebook and our website. Be wise, stay at home!” said Terry Nyambe, Assistant Keeper of Ichthyology, Livingstone Museum, Zambia
To continue the support they provide as social networks, many of Lebanon’s museums have made virtual tours and mobile applications available. “We will come through this and we are keeping in mind, for after COVID-19, the reprogramming of activities in our museums, because by saving culture, we save society, its diversity, its vitality and its creativity,” said Anne Marie Afeiche, Executive Director General, Council of Museums, Lebanon.
Hamady Bocoum, General Manager of the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal, is quickly taking action. “Since the Museum closed due to COVID-19, we are engaging our experts to film guided tours of all the exhibitions. These will be broadcast in segments on Senegalese television, and will also be made available online,” he said.
Beryl Ondiek, Director of National Museums in Seychelles, stated that “In the mist of chaos, museums break the walls that keep us apart. Museums can use all of the collections and information we have, and transmit our cultural and natural heritage to communities through the internet to lift spirits and keep everyone connected.”
At a time when billions of people around the world are separated from one another, museums can bring us together
Devising strategies going forward
While closures are usually decided by the national authorities, most museums must devise their own coping strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic, and these vary widely. The challenges are multiple; support for staff, security, and preservation of collections must continue. Not only are they not generating revenue, museums are also vulnerable when closed. On 29 March 2020, for example, the painting "Spring Garden" by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum, Netherlands, which is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19.
Museums are looking to a variety of sources including local and national government, the public, and other benefactors. In some cases, major foundations and philanthropic entities are launching new funds to support cultural organizations. Other initiatives include loosening grant application restrictions, extending or waiving deadlines, and honoring commitments for events that won’t take place.
The Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, England depends on the Mary Rose Trust for conserving and displaying King Henry VIII’s favorite warship, and her unique collection of artefacts. Helen Bonser-Wilton, Chief Executive of the Trust, reported that after the museum’s closure amid COVID-19, the Mary Rose was “in mortal peril” because 90% of funding comes from visitors, with the majority generated between April and September. She described how “urgent financial help was needed from the government to ensure the complex conservation processes for the preservation of the wreck and its artefacts can continue.”
Suzy Hakimian, President of ICOM Lebanon, noted that many museums with more limited means are trying to cope with an increase in the financial challenges they were already confronting in normal times. “At the end of this catastrophe, it will be necessary to save a number of museums in order to preserve their collections and above all avoid laying off their staff” she said. “This will constitute a fundamental part of future museum emergency plans,” she added.
Sharing good practices
UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) are cooperating to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the museum sector. UNESCO is currently identifying museums around the world that are offering online content and innovative strategies in response to the coronavirus crisis. A list is being established with links to museum institutions, and the information will be made available online. A special effort has been made to focus on the Arab region and Africa, for which data are still fragmentary. This mapping will allow the general public to access these collections, while also allowing museums to exchange good practices to support the development of long-term museum strategies.