UNESCO rallies for the future of museums
On March 18th, 2021, UNESCO brought together 12 museum Directors from around the world for the online debate, “Reflections on the Future of Museums”. The purpose was to further understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on museum institutions, and also to discuss the future of museums.
The participants all commented on the important losses suffered by museum institutions during the pandemic: a drastic drop in attendance, a collapse in budgets, postponement of openings, staff cuts, etc. Closed for a year now, museums are facing severe financial, human, material and security consequences. According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM) data, 30% of the world’s museums face a reduction in staff and 6% a permanent closure. Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (UK), with up to 50% of its global budget funded by the state, deplored the situation, noting that the museum faces a “£10 million structural deficit … and a difficult situation of having to make redundancies, cuts and restructuring.”.
The museums that reopened their doors implemented protocols requiring fewer visitors or specific adjustments to the health context (thermal cameras, ventilation systems, etc.). The only positive aspect of the lockdown period was that the closures allowed some museums to undertake or accelerate maintenance or restoration work that would not have been possible if they were open to the public.
The closure of museums has led to a disruption of the social link, bringing the digital issue to the forefront. Despite the challenges, many collections have been made accessible online, allowing museums to remain in touch with their communities and reach new audiences. However, the digital offer still appears to be a communication medium that replicates the in-situ experience without going further, such as developing research, training, education or inventory activities through the use digital technologies.
This path of development seems particularly essential, as does the fight against the digital divide. According to the UNESCO Report on Museums around the World in 2020, only 5% of museums in Africa and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have an online presence. Although museums are aware of the opportunity that digital development provides, they highlight its limitations and the fact that the primary focus should remain on the (physical) museum visit.
The educative mandate of museums was emphasised during the debate, with some museums offering to provide online educational materials for schools, teachers and parents during the pandemic. This effort of solidarity towards the educational world and towards citizens was also apparent at the level of museums, as many understood the need to strengthen connections and collectively consider solutions. “Museums must build bridges” said Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage Museum (Russia).
The link with communities was at the centre of the discussions. Museums have a civic role to play and, to do so, they must be more attentive to the needs of the community and adopt a partnership approach. The question of their foundation and legitimacy becomes essential. Deborah L. Mack, Director of the National Museum of African Art (USA), pointed out the existence of a “double pandemic in the United States”, due to the COVID-19 crisis and the increase of racism in the country. In discussing how museums are not separated from the world, and there is no museum without its environment, she stressed that “We need to know who we serve and why we exist.” Emphasis was also placed on mediation and the role of dialogue. Museums should be places of memory and cultural exchange where we learn about ourselves as well as other cultures.
In early April, UNESCO will publish the updated version of the report “Museums around the world in the face of COVID-19“, which will assess the situation of museums in the face of the crisis fifteen months after the beginning of the epidemic, based on a survey carried out among UNESCO’s Member States.