Museums and power in the age of Covid-19

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 09.10.2020

Museums are fascinating: they are places where collecting, preservation, research, learning and entertainment happen, giving us opportunities to engage with our heritage and culture. But museums are also fascinating for a darker, perhaps less obvious reason: they are places of (contested) power. Power relations may be invisible, yet they permeate every connection that the museum has: with staff, audiences and collections. We might ask, for example, how are museums positioned in terms of workforce diversity? Who are the permanent and temporary exhibitions aimed at? Who decides how objects are interpreted?

These questions (and related ones) have been discussed for quite a while now, and action – or calls to action – in response to them were on the rise in recent years. Then came the pandemic. With many countries facing a lockdown, followed by a reopening under heightened safety and distancing measures, museums had to rethink many of their normal practices. In Luxembourg and elsewhere, there was widespread talk about how museums could develop their online offerings and adapt their spaces and exhibits to the new measures. Their ability to adapt and make rapid changes were often praised in this respect. A more critical light was also shed on the economic and human repercussions of Covid-19 and lockdown. In this climate of uncertainty and change, we appear to have the ideal opportunity to reflect on the impact of the current situation on existing power relations.

With safety being the order of the day, museums around the globe have made exceptional efforts to protect the people circulating around their premises – staff and visitors alike. Regarding their employees, it is now a priority for museums to build a working environment in which people feel as safe as possible. Vulnerable workers and older tour guides and volunteers deserve extra protection so that they can continue to work in the places they love, whether they do so in person or remotely. We also know that certain sections of society, in particular those who are financially disadvantaged, have been the most affected by the pandemic in terms of health and income. If we transfer these insights to the context of museums, we quickly realise that the most exposed workers are not those at the top of the career ladder but rather the front-of-house workers and, most significantly, the essential but rarely acknowledged cleaning staff. Furthermore, with many museums facing shrinking revenues and several international museums facing the looming prospect of closure, staff may be laid off or contracts and projects may be cancelled. Again, it will be those in the most precarious situations, such as part-time staff, freelancers and artists, who will be the most affected.

Similar to museum workers, visitors need to be protected or at least feel safe enough to go to museums again. As well as requiring people to wear face masks and stay distanced, museums have taken additional measures, such as removing touchscreens, limiting their programming, introducing online booking for visits and offering self-guided tours that people can do on a smartphone. It is important to remember that these changes, especially those requiring digital skills and devices, are likely to create new barriers that may prevent some people from visiting museums and engaging with exhibits. That said, the sector’s development of digital media and communication during lockdown (and beyond) has the potential to make museums more accessible. People with limited mobility who are not able to visit a museum in person and people who do not have the opportunity to visit during opening times are two examples of groups who could benefit from online content and programmes such as virtual tours and talks, and many museum websites have indeed experienced increased traffic during lockdown. While this sounds promising, it is worth remembering that a higher number of online visits does not necessarily tell us whether a museum is actually attracting new visitors. It might well be that people who ordinarily would have visited in person have simply switched to visiting online.

Online offerings were essential during lockdown but should continue to complement physical offerings to allow for the widest possible access and engagement. It needs to be said, though, that not all museums have the capacity to invest in online content and to develop their digital presence. While there are differences between large and small museums, there are also wide disparities between museums in different parts of the world. A recent UNESCO report showed that some institutions (for example, in African countries) do not have the necessary technical resources and will therefore be more affected by the current situation. That said, museums can build relationships with communities using other channels, without having to rely on online or in-person visits. We have seen imaginative and inspiring examples across the globe from museums and other cultural institutions. For example, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter sent creative activity packs to isolated people in response to requests by phone. Another impressive example comes from Melbourne’s Yarra Plenty libraries, where the staff phoned all 8000 of their members over the age of 70 to chat and ask them if they needed any help – even for things that were not related to their library membership.

Finally, the pandemic will also affect museums’ collections. Dwindling budgets may have an impact on acquisitions and exhibition-planning – even though the effects need not always be negative. Fewer blockbuster and travelling exhibitions will ultimately benefit the environment and may provide incentives to create regional partnerships. This is also an opportunity to rediscover and reimagine collections. For example, museums might question how objects have been interpreted and whose stories have been represented so far. The last couple of months were not only marked by the pandemic but also by the momentum created by the Black Lives Matter movement, and Luxembourg was no exception. It is therefore a timely moment to look at collections through a new lens; for example, by reinterpreting colonial objects in partnership with Afro-descendant communities and by questioning whether enough space has been given to black artists in museums. If museums make room for more diversity in terms of voices and stories, their audiences might ultimately become more diverse too.

The last few months have undoubtedly begun to influence power structures in museums – for better or for worse. The question now is how museums might seize the opportunities, rather than focus on the limitations, created by the pandemic to call into question existing practices and transform endeavours into action. A time when everyone has been propelled outside their comfort zone and forced to change old habits could be the perfect moment for museums to push their own boundaries.

Laurence Brasseur
© 2023 d’Lëtzebuerger Land