How the pandemic affected the fate of museums around the world and what it led to
How the pandemic affected the fate of museums around the world and what it led to

In 2020, the world experienced a global health crisis. All industries were affected, but the heritage sector was affected the most. In a joint report by UNESCO and ICOM, both groups showed that about ninety-five percent of museums closed their doors at the start of the pandemic, and many are still closed almost a year later. Museums are reporting all-time low attendance rates. To counteract this, they have increased their online presence. Through innovative use of social media, live events and an increase in online programming, museums are moving beyond their walls to stay relevant to their visitors.

Museums are partnering with digital platforms to create virtual museum tours as a safe alternative to in-person visits. They also use apps and games like Tik Tok, Animal Crossing, and web videos to share their collections and content.

In line with the pandemic's guidelines recommending reducing time spent in closed public spaces, humankind is still seeing the introduction of ticket-based museum entrances, special visiting hours and new visitor safety protocols. The future of museums and their guests will require innovative solutions to ensure that visitors and staff feel comfortable and safe when they return to museums.

The Bridesmaid, John Millet, 1851 (updated 2020). \ Photo:

Because of this, the fate of the institutions themselves and their workers is in a vulnerable position. The overwhelming loss of revenue from visitors, exhibitions, programs and events has led museums to make difficult decisions. They had to sell art, lay off employees, and lay off entire departments. Small museums struggling to survive were forced to make ends meet with emergency funds and grants or, in the case of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, closed indefinitely.

Art museums in the United States have received the green light from the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) to sell art from their collections to help pay for operating costs. At the start of the pandemic, the AAMD loosened its registration de-registration guidelines. Usually, policies should be strict to keep museums from selling items during the financial crisis, but now many museums need to stay afloat.

The Met Virtual Tool, 2020. \ Photo:

The Brooklyn Museum of Art sold twelve works of art at Christie's to cover operating expenses. In addition, the sale of Jackson Pollock at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, raised $ 12 million. While this period is unlikely to set a precedent for future museum access and rejection of works of art during the crisis, it has allowed museums to rethink and diversify their collections.

Many of the oldest museums in the world have a legacy dating back to the era of empires, where objects seized by force or stolen from colonized countries are kept and displayed. Activists and museum workers have consistently called on museums to be more transparent about their imperialist past, calling for decolonization efforts such as contextualizing their collections with controversial stories.The German Association of Museums has published a set of guidelines on how museums can best achieve this: adding multiple narrative perspectives to labels, collaborating with descendants of the community of origin, exploring origins, and removing and restitution of objects of the colonial context.

Photograph of the Florence Nightingale Museum. \ Photo:

Last summer, the British Museum launched the Collecting and Empire Trail, which provided additional context for the fifteen items in the collection, including their origins and how they ended up in the museum. Collecting and Empire Trail is well known, but criticized for its Eurocentric neutral and abstract language and for excluding certain objects that were intended to return to their country of origin, such as Benin bronze and Parthenon marble.

Museums are notorious for stalling for time when it comes to decolonization and restitution, and have only recently begun the process. In 2017, the French government published a Sarre-Savoy report proposing the return of artifacts removed from African countries during imperialist rule. Three years passed without much progress, and in October 2020, France voted to return twenty-seven artifacts to Benin and Senegal. Other museums are also taking steps to return and recover items removed from their former colonies.

Red composition, Jackson Pollock, 1946. \ Photo:

Unfortunately, restitution in some countries cannot happen without government support. In the case of the UK, they would have to change the law, which states that UK museums cannot remove from their collection items that are more than two hundred years old. The same goes for statues of controversial colonial and racist figures as part of the Black Life Matters protests. Now there is a debate about what to do with these figures and whether museums might be the best place for them.

Sculptures of the Parthenon as they were exhibited in 1923 in the British Museum. \ Photo:

Following the cutting down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, the archaeological journal Sapiens and the Society of Black Archaeologists organized a group of scientists and artists to address the issue of the controversial sites. Whether the final destination of a monument is in a museum or not, the future of museums depends on improving their methods of interpretation. By providing additional context for the history of racism and colonialism, museums can effectively communicate more transparently how they have benefited from such regimes, which is another step forward in the process of decolonization.

Parthenon marble, by Phidias, 5th century BC NS. \ Photo:

On the contrary, the Dutch government has put in place guidelines for the rebuilding of any colonial sites seized by violence or force from the former Dutch colonies. In September 2020, the Ethnological Museum Berlin returned human remains to Te Papa Tongareva in New Zealand. The museum has been a staunch supporter of restitution because they see it as a reconciliation with societies affected by colonialism. Thus, the future of museums' plans for restitution depends on changes in their policies, laws and objectives.

Benin bronzes of the 16th-17th centuries. \ Photo:

Meanwhile, museums are working on anti-colonial practices in their spaces. This means sharing the authority to document and interpret the culture and history of those historically excluded. Establishing long-term partnerships based on collaboration with communities of descendants of origin will mean that museums in the future will see progress in decolonization, eliminating inequities in power structures and creating an inclusive museum for all.

Since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmad Arbury, Elijah McClain and countless others at the hands of the police last summer, the arts and heritage sectors have been forced to grapple with systemic racism in their museums and galleries. When the racial equality protest first began, museums showed their solidarity through social media posts and events. The art community has taken part in Zoom lectures, artist speeches and press releases dedicated to the fight against racism.

Feelings (Feelings) monument to Edward Colston, Black Lives Matter demonstrators, 2020. \ Photo:

However, Black, Indigenous and Color Painters and Museum Practitioners (BIPOC) remain underwhelmed by the show of support. Black curator and artist Kimberly Drew wrote an article for Vanity Fair arguing that real change will happen when long-term structural changes take place: diverse recruitment and executive leadership, and a redefining workplace culture. The future of museums depends on structural, long-term changes.

Robert Milligan, Docklands Museum, London. \ Photo:

Three museums have already started their work. In June 2020, the Walker Center for the Arts, the Minneapolis Art Institute and the Chicago Museum of Art terminated their contracts with their city's police, citing the need to reform and demilitarize the police. Many also see a growing need to redefine attitudes towards racism in the workplace, advocating anti-racism and inclusion training. Change Museum is an anonymous Instagram page where museum staff at BIPOC share their experiences with racial micro-aggression on a daily basis. Numerous BIPOC museum professionals talk about the treatment they have encountered in the museum space.

Most notable is the experience of Shedria Labouvier, the first black female curator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She faced discrimination, hostility and exclusion while curating Basquiat's Corruption: The Untold Story.

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho, Thomas Gainsborough, 1768. \ Photo:

In 2018, the Andrew Carnegie Mellon Foundation conducted research on ethnic and gender diversity in art museums across the United States. The survey found that there was little improvement in the representation of historically excluded people as museums. Twenty percent of people of color are in museum positions, such as curator or curator, and twelve percent are in leadership positions. The future of museums will see museum professionals tackle racism in their collections: these spaces lack BIPOC art and artists.

Throughout Alice Proctor's painting, the author notes that there are layers of erasure in the artistic-historical narration: “The lack of representation of people of color in European and North American art in the 18th and 19th centuries, and especially the absence of the enslaved and previously enslaved, speaks of the process of racial isolation and oppression in a broader sense."

To add context to these works, museums can use a multidimensional perspective to tell the whole story. This will effectively combat distorted perceptions of colonialism, violence and the consequences for the people of oppressed communities. The future of museum documentation is changing to add this context.

Portrait of the Unknown Man and His Servant, Bartolomeo Passarotti, 1579. \ Photo:

Museums are also ditching art created by white artists in order to diversify their collection by adding art from people of color. In October 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art was planning to sell three major works of art to fund its diversity initiatives. However, it was stopped at the last minute by the Association of Art Museum Directors because the sale did not meet needs beyond the current financial problems associated with the pandemic.

In 2019, Plos One published a study following a survey of the collections of eighteen of the largest museums in the United States, which found that eighty-five percent of the artists were white and eighty-seven percent were men. Museums such as the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Historical Society are already collect items associated with the BLM movement: posters, oral recordings and tear gas cans to perpetuate recent history.Thus, the future of museums will reflect the unfolding history of the pandemic, the decolonization movement, and the BLM movement.

And in the next article, read also about what is stored in the most secret warehouse in the port of Geneva and why this place is so beloved by many art dealers.

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