Search Museum Next

Covid-19: What the “New Normal” Means for Museums

It is one of those key phrases that seems to have seeped into the public consciousness over the past 12 months.  The “new normal” is what we, as consumers, employees, business owners and parents must get used to in order to maintain a sense of calm in a world under the spell of a pandemic. The very idea of a new normal makes matters seem at once under control and yet, at the same time, utterly and mind-bogglingly altered.

As countries around the world prepare to mark a year since their respective lockdowns began, each will reflect on a 12-month period that has been filled with unforeseeable hardships . . . but also unexpected opportunities.

For the museum sector, the spring was a time when physical closures were imposed and internal teams found themselves forging a new path in the online space. Among those early virtual meetings, many will have discussed what they thought audiences might want from museums in a digital format; others will have contemplated how new exhibitions could be curated under such tight restrictions; still more would have been looking to address the glaring issue of lost revenue.

Positives may have been hard to come by in 2020. But the willingness of the museum sector to make the best of the new normal and the creativity that has been on show as a result is nothing short of inspiring.

One thing most can agree on now is that there will be no return to the “old normal” in the museum space – and indeed across the arts and culture sector. Even after the pandemic is behind us, many of the initiatives, innovations and adaptations that have taken place during this time will remain.

Redefining the role of digital

Although repeated lockdowns, cancellations and closures have pushed many museum services to the brink, the past 12 months have also been an exercise in resilience. Across countries and continents, museums – like so many other industries – have quickly adapted to implement measures to reduce contact, improve hygiene standards and manage activities. From hand-washing stations and cleaning protocols to large-scale digital transformation projects designed to facilitate remote work and manage bookings, there has been a willingness to do everything and anything it takes to make progress.

With buildings closed and tourism heavily impacted, the shift towards digital engagement and delivery of exhibitions was particularly dramatic over the course of 2020. Research undertaken by NEMO in the early phases of the pandemic in April 2020 showed that of the nearly 1000 responses they received from museums across 48 countries, 37% of museums increased activities and 23% started new online activities in response to lockdowns.

Compare this to the follow up survey undertaken between October and November 2020, and 93% of the responding museums increased or started online services during the pandemic and 53% of the museums increased or started creating video content. More than a third reported that they had added budget and/or resources to increase their online presence or communication in the midst of the pandemic.

As we work our way out of the pandemic and visitors are allowed to roam freely in museums and galleries once more, there will no longer be the same dependence on online exhibitions as the only source of cultural fulfilment. But there is no doubt that digital will form an integral part of future marketing, accessibility and even commercial efforts. Too much has been invested and too many benefits have been identified for online tools and resources to be cast aside.

Documenting Covid

As with any major event in history that impacts society in such a profound way, the mere memory of Covid-19 will stay with us for generations to come. And as we look towards the new normal, there are already signs of museums doing what they do best – documenting, exhibiting and educating audiences. As guardians of our culture and history, there are many fine examples of museums putting together collections that will capture the essence of pandemic life for future generations.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is just one institution that has responding to the social changes initiated by Covid lockdowns in this fashion through a 2020 online editorial series – Pandemic Objects.  The series aims to spotlight the everyday items and artefacts that captured attention during the Spring lockdown.  Not necessarily focused on big change or flashy tech – the series examined how the pandemic made us see or use everyday items in a different way.

Through this editorial project, the V&A showcased swathes of home-drawn rainbow artistry of varying levels of detail and showmanship, alongside hand-drawn signage employed by shops to indicate responses to rapidly changing rules and regulations. As starved of entertainment and changing scenery as the nation was, the series also highlighted just how much we took notice of the little things during a lockdown that seemed at the time to be the answer to a crisis that would be over by summer.

Speaking to the Guardian, senior design curator of V&A London commented:

“The pandemic has this weird way of bringing to the fore objects you would never have thought about…everything becomes heightened.”

Pandemic Objects also looks at other trends we saw during the pandemic, such as the explosion in popularity of dog ownership, the art of handwashing, Tik Tok, hand clapping and, of course, baking.  As the world rushed out to bake banana bread and make sourdough to pass the time at home, shortages of staple food products such as flour and yeast in the early stages of the lockdown spoke volumes about the actions of a nation during the stay at home order.

The simplicity of such collections and online digital delivery platform show how during lockdowns our cultural institutions are adapting.  Columbia University and the Chicago History Museum are just some of the many institutions to have announced they are collecting first-person testimonies and items documenting the pandemic.  Cultural institutions are not only witness to changes but are actively identifying ways to create relevant and authentic exhibitions that document this living history – finding interest in the everyday to capture aspects of the human condition.

While we will not truly feel like we have come out the other side of the Coronavirus pandemic for many months (and potentially years), we’re beginning to see how a post-Covid world is taking shape. And that’s something we should all be free to get excited about.

About the author – Tim Deakin

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

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week