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COVID-19 shines a light on the crucial role museums play in our society

Picture of central London during the Covid pandemic

As the song goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”. And that’s certainly how the world is feeling right now about those cultural venues and institutions that we all miss so dearly.

With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating our lives for close to a year now, the loss of our favourite pastimes and enriching experiences has become increasingly painful. So, it’s only natural that we attempt to reflect on how things have changed and how much we have all had to adjust to a “new normal”.

Significant change causes us to try and make sense of the world around us, and time and time again we turn to art as a way to express and perceive the complex emotional impact of pivotal moments in human history.

While spending time wandering the corridors and galleries of our favourite institutions may not have been possible for much of the last year, it’s true to say that museums haven’t been standing still.

In fact, they’ve been finding new ways to resonate and connect with the public – at a time when their value has become intensely clear under the microscope of restrictions and hardship.

A case in point: the Covid Letters:

The UK’s Foundling Museum was originally founded in the 1700s as a home for abandoned children. It seems fitting, therefore, that their most recent exhibition gave voice to the young people struggling with the realities of the pandemic.

The Covid Letters was pieced together by designed Jonny Banger, who sought out works from the nation’s children during lockdown. Using the letter Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent out to households to announce the lockdown as a canvas, children under the age of 16 were encouraged to customise and decorate it in a way that articulated their feelings about the pandemic. This included how they felt about the Government, the NHS, schools and the changes to family life.

The result is over 200 unique works which give a direct insight into the way the pandemic has impacted young people. From anti-government graffiti to support for the NHS, this colourful collection is full of frustration, inspiration and stories.

Going digital in a big way

When much of the world first went into lockdown in spring 2020, museums were forced to shut their doors. Almost one year later, many of these institutions have mastered the art of digital exhibitions.

Even the world’s biggest cultural powerhouses like The Louvre, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum have spent the last year creating a constant stream of illuminating and inspiring content for museum fans to enjoy from anywhere in the world. And although this level of digitalisation has been forced upon us by chaotic circumstances, in a way it has made museums more accessible than ever before. The ever-evolving use of social media by museums in lockdown has also created a clear line of communication between institutions and the public, allowing fans and followers to inform the dialogue – rather than acting merely as the audience to broadcast messages.

So it’s no wonder that the rise in digital exhibitions has been well-received. The Centre Pompidou in Paris has seen record numbers of “visitors” in lockdown, and a huge spike in digital interest. The museum’s official podcast has had eight times as many listens since the building’s closure, and the popularity of the museum’s YouTube channel is reportedly up by 60%.

Exploring the state of wellbeing

Not every museum has found success in lockdown, and many may struggle to entice visitors back through their physical doors in the wake of the pandemic – even if they have survived the financial hardship of the last 12 months. For those who succeed in battling through, however, there will almost undoubtedly be a period of self-reflection and introspection to navigate over the coming months and years.

This is exactly what the Guardians of Sleep exhibition aims to achieve. Created through a collaboration between the Museum of London and Canada’s Museum of Dreams, the exhibition will collect descriptions of people’s COVID dreams as a way to explore and understand any commonality in how our mental health has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Such ambitious exhibitions highlight how, by engaging with today’s society, museums have the power to help us all feel less alone.

Of course, any discussion about mental health must address the anxiety, fear and stress that has been a common feature of everyday life in recent times. But if museums are equipped to do anything, it is to help make sense of the world through. As we emerge from the trauma of Covid-19, capturing the knowledge we have gained and documenting the stories created during this period will be essential to the role museums play in our society.

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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