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Museums in the time of Corona: Our moral duty to the most vulnerable

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

We are delighted to have a second blog contribution from Tess Juan-Gaillot! Tess is an arts mediator at the Institute for Islamic Cultures in Paris. We had the pleasure of meeting her there during a Soul Food excursion last fall. You can check out her first Soul Food blog post here.

In the wake of this pandemic and the consequent world-wide shutdown of non-essential businesses, the cultural sector has taken a huge hit. Of course the hit has been economic, but it’s also been psychological. What does it mean when, as a museum professional, a global crisis threatens to confirm what Business majors have been telling you all along? That you aren’t as important or essential as you said you were? As a result, museums and other cultural institutions are fighting to stay relevant and prove how “essential” they truly are to society. It can be an awkward learning curve for many institutions who, it seems, should have been slightly ahead of the game. Instead, this pandemic has highlighted a severe lack in innovative museum practice and a less than ideal community presence for some. On the other hand, it’s also given rise to some rather impressive and surprising initiatives that merit to be (being) applauded and learned from.

First, it’s important to understand what standard I and many professionals use to judge the relevance of the museum in 2020. Despite its ever-evolving search for a definition, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) currently relies on its 2007 definition of the museum. According to this definition, a museum is a “non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the publics, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” Seems simple enough.

Since 2007, things have changed a bit and a greater focus on social justice, democratizing culture and centering previously marginalized stories became the signifier of a museum’s cultural relevance. As a result, the following 2019 definition is as follows and remains unofficial until it goes to a vote, but speaks volumes to our responsibilities as institutions and professionals in the museum and arts sectors today.

“Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

(Definition proposed in 2019 by Jette Sandahl, ICOM Standing Committee Chair)

Official or not, this 2019 definition shows a clear desire to make museums active participants in social change and an essential part of today’s societal fabric. In a time like this where museums are clearly considered non-essential during a pandemic and are ordered to shut down, we must rethink exactly what makes us essential and how to best fulfill our ethical duty as public servants (all the while respecting scientific advice and directives, of course). As an arts educator who works with a variety of audiences including migrant youth, I feel the arts sector must use this time to re-examine itself. Do our actions align with the lofty ideals and value-systems we like to prone? Who is being served? Are we really doing all that we can?

Photo © Soul Food / Kryssandra Heslop

Crucially, this pandemic has forced museums and cultural institutions to make a digital pivot, whether they were ready or not. Media outlets that normally cover cultural and artistic productions are faced with writing about events that one can no longer attend. As a result, exciting virtual museum tours and sometimes less exciting digital platforms have been getting a lot more traction than usual. This has pushed certain museums to invest in creating virtual versions of their exhibitions and even catering remotely to visitors with guided Zoom tours. All of a sudden, the possibilities can seem endless. Not only can museums maintain their connection to their usual audiences, but they can engage with new audiences from all over the world.

In addition to innovative virtual guided tours, museums are being more generous with their knowledge these days. Previously private resources are being shared for free, museums are showing the inner workings of their various departments and job positions, and security guards are being interviewed and centered as essential to the life of the museum. Cultural mediation has become vulnerable and instantaneous via Facebook live sessions and chat exchanges led by arts educators. Artists are being paid to share their work online, giving “private” concerts and conferences to those who sign up and log in at the right time. Weekly newsletters have never been so lively and full of resources. Children can now participate in artistic activities linked to the exhibition by following animated online instructions or follow an artist-led live masterclass. Some museums are even going as far as creating physical art kits that they hand out to would-be visitors in a museum-drive-through system, masks and all.

All of a sudden, institutions that had turned their noses up at technological investments as rudimentary as audio-guides (which favor visitor accessibility even if you don’t particularly like them), seemed to pull out all the stops only two weeks into confinement. Though this is an exciting and hopeful turn of events in the arts sector, it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic for some museums to consider making their activity more accessible and transparent. However, as this pandemic pushes all of us to dig deep in search of innovative, compassionate and accessible solutions to the array of new problems popping up each day, we must be mindful of those who were and continue to be left out of these “solutions.” I believe technology can help museums foster greater accessibility, but the digital divide should not be underestimated or ignored.

This pandemic has shown me how much I rely on technology for my well-being. It’s allowed me to stay connected with loved ones, keep up with the ever-changing news, maintain my sanity, and oh yeah — keep my job. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t one of those privileged enough to benefit from a certain silver lining in the midst of this horrible situation. Not everyone has that luxury. This pandemic has led me to anxiously ask questions like: What about those without a roof over their heads, electricity, Internet, a fully-paid unlimited phone plan, a smartphone or a computer? What about those who don’t speak the language of the country they are living in? What about those who don’t have access to and can’t decipher the increasingly confusing governmental decrees concerning the pandemic? What about those who can’t find the latest permission slip that will (hopefully) keep them from falling victim to police harassment or brutality as they do their groceries? What about those that have lost their income, their housing, their access to legal, social and psychological support in a foreign land? What about their health, their sanity, their safety, and their education?

Prior to the pandemic, these questions were urgent. Now they point to a situation that is downright dire. Time is ticking and yet things have ground to a halt. Unaccompanied migrant youth are a particularly at-risk population that require a timely and thorough assessment of their needs, which (it should go without saying) need to be met with the care and urgency we would afford any other child. Technological accessibility may not be the first obvious obstacle for these children, but we have to realize it is a not-so-small part of this equation. Of course, if you don’t have a roof over your head, your first worry probably isn’t how to attend a virtual guided tour of an art exhibition, but it may be to attend an online language class. Try doing that on your phone even in the best of situations. If you don’t know the language, education remains a priority to get your basic needs met. If you just lost your housing and don’t speak the language, maintaining contact with volunteers over the phone may be the difference between sleeping on the street or in a bed that night. For many, confinement and the shutdown of non-essential businesses means the loss of planned internships and apprenticeships that are vital to professional insertion and obtaining secure legal status.

Museums and other cultural institutions won’t be the end-all be-all for those in crisis, but I do believe that they have a role to play. For example, a cultural association in Marseille, La Friche Belle de Mai, is proving that repurposing our institutions is entirely possible and very much in demand. Shortly after La Friche had to shut down due to confinement measures, they welcomed 30 homeless people and the accompanying SOS Solidarités volunteers to their living quarters, which are usually reserved for artists in residency. In Caen, the Fine Arts Museum accommodated a number of elementary school students because their classrooms were deemed too small to properly respect the necessary physical distancing measures. What I find truly promising is that the museum didn’t just lend them the space, but the museum arts educators were equally involved in accompanying students and teachers in learning their times-tables and geometry exercises, sometimes by relating the homework to the artworks. These initiatives are heartwarming, but they also show how museums have untapped potential and the ability to adapt rapidly in times of need.

If museums were following their definition as outlined by the ICOM, they should have a network of strong local partnerships with a variety of socio-cultural and even socio-medical organisms that already work to build bridges between the most disadvantaged communities and themselves. In a pandemic where total or partial confinement is necessary and isolation exacerbates feelings of loneliness and mental illness and makes the already-vulnerable more vulnerable, it seems entirely possible and even a smart investment move, for museums to activate these networks with the aim of maintaining and reinforcing social bonds. Let’s check in with these groups, let’s ask questions, let’s be flexible, let’s reprioritize. What do they need? How can we provide that while staying true to our original mission? How can we repurpose our buildings, our human resources, our political connections, and our various skill-sets? In short — let’s think outside the box. Not only is it the “right” thing to do, but it comes at little or no cost and acts as an investment in the museum’s longevity and cultural relevance. We are only as strong as our relationships to those we serve every day, especially in times as trying as these.

Photo © Soul Food / Kryssandra Heslop

Even the most privileged among us, including myself, are feeling the psychological impact of being physically isolated from our support systems. So, let’s activate that empathy muscle and imagine already being isolated from your family, friends, culture, language, income, and legal status prior to this pandemic. Now imagine seeing any existing support or access you may have had evaporate or go radio silent. Thankfully, associations (non-profits) and volunteers working with unaccompanied migrant youth and other at-risk populations are some of the most adaptable and dedicated parts of our society, and therefore remain active despite the added difficulties that a pandemic creates. As museums and cultural institutions, why not start with them? Fortunately (and unfortunately), they are used to working in difficult situations with few means, and yet they persevere. Incidentally, they are proving that a lot can be done with very little, as usual. But should they have to pay this price alone, over and over again? Isn’t this the time for us museums and cultural institutions to show the world how essential we truly are? What better time to prove our worth than in times of need?

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