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A new kind of challenge: curating in the COVID-19 crisis

Rapid response and celebrating the mundane. Creative solutions have been the order of the day for the arts and culture sector through 2020.

COVID-19 has been the catalyst for transformation across many aspects of society. Whether it’s the adoption of technology for remote work, the embracing of online shopping or the rise of the virtual classroom, we’ve found a way to function and connect at a time when face-to-face interaction must be kept to a minimum.

As much as the pandemic has brought society to a standstill, it has also accelerated some of the trends that were already in motion – particularly in the digital space. Think cashless transactions, video calling, remote working and more.

And nowhere has this been more evident than in museums. In 2020, museums had to find new ways to stay relevant and maintain a role in the public consciousness at a time when footfall has been, at best, limited and, at worst, non-existent. Digitisation has been evident within many institutions over recent years but COVID-19 has certainly forced those who were previously taking a cautious, gradual approach to now jump in with both feet.

According to some sources, we have seen 5 years of progress condensed into 12 months, which is both a sign of the challenges that have presented themselves and a credit to those institutions that have shown a willingness to pivot quickly.

So what exactly has been the reality of curating in the COVID-19 crisis? Has it all been a case of mere survival, or have there been opportunities for innovation hidden beneath the chaos? Let’s take a closer look.

Rapid Response Collecting

Back in 2014, the V&A launched its Rapid Response Collecting initiative. Curators Kieran Long and Corina Gardner aimed to shine a light on what were then very timely issues. As such, the project included hot topic artefacts like the first 3-D printed gun, and umbrellas used by Hong Kong protestors to protect their faces from tear gas.

The novelty of Rapid Response Collecting at the time of its inception was that it was far removed from many of the V&A’s other exhibits, but in 2020 this approach has proven itself to be hugely relevant, engaging and significantly more commonplace.

The V&A itself launched a series of online case studies titled “Pandemic Objects”. The digital exhibition highlighted many aspects of modern life that have become commonplace in 2020, like the influx of handmade signs – from children’s hand-drawn rainbows to store closure signs – describing them as “the editorial layer” of a city. Elsewhere in the exhibition, viewers could witness the swapping of planned holidays to virtual tourism via Google Earth, and a redesign of the humble door handle to reflect our modern contagion-anxious age.

Written works also put a spotlight on various aspects of 2020. One such piece highlighted the mammoth task of converting a convention centre into an emergency care facility, while another addressed a more domesticated scenario by investigating the pleasures of home-baking.

Making the mundane monumental

The V&A is not alone in its efforts. Formerly known as the Geffrye, the Museum of the Home has spent much of 2020 documenting the lives of those living under lockdown through a series of personal accounts, focusing on everything from improvised workspaces to improvised haircuts. Meanwhile, the Museum of London issued an open call for both physical and virtual objects as part of an initiative entitled “Collecting COVID” which, according to curator Beatrice Behlen, seeks out anything “from clothing to hair clippers, from diaries to memes”.

The San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design addressed the global surge in mask wearing with an upbeat handmade mask challenge called “Let’s Face It”, which encouraged participants to face up to the realities of the pandemic with creativity and positivity (shown above). Elsewhere, the Autry Museum of the American West set about gathering photographs, recipes and diary entries from the member of the public, marking just the first in a planned series of community-based collecting initiatives.

Other important aspects of 2020 have also been reflected in museum culture. The National Museum of African American History and Culture focuses on the experience of the Black community, and as such has used its influence to shine a light on the Black Lives Matter movement, which was given fresh importance in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd.

A new outlook on collecting

All of these museums are highlighting new ways of operating in unprecedented times. Each, in their own way, has required curators to hold a magnifying glass to current circumstances and use their platform to bring a sense of purpose and community to our modern chaos. The museum – a space often associated with the more distant past – has become a representative for the present.

In 2020, curators have been required to retool, rebrand and rethink their roles. Much of what might have been physical has become digital, and those items which remain physical come from the everyday and the mundane, rather than leading artists and collectors.

And what is this, but just another example of how today’s museums are reflecting our current situations? If 2020 has taught us one thing it’s that, in times of panic and crisis, it is the contribution of the everyday person – the general public, the educators, the key workers and the healthcare providers – who are perhaps most worthy of recognition.

To find out more about the way in which museums and galleries have pivoted to digital to meet the unique demands of 2020, don’t miss the MuseumNext Digital Summit in February 2021.

Tickets are available here.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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