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Here’s why the public will be rushing back to museums

As we await the return of normality around the globe, there’s a sense of anticipation building for millions of people who are desperate to get back to their favourite cultural venue or institution.

Museums, galleries, cultural venues and heritage sites have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis (along with the many other sectors, it should be said). If that wasn’t abundantly clear heading into the winter, it certainly is now, as we find ourselves praying that spring brings a change of fortunes.

Forced closures in line with stringent safety measures mean budding museum-goers have been unable to visit their favourite exhibitions and establishments in-person for many weeks. While the rising death toll certainly demands that we keep our frustrations in context, we should at least consider what role museums will play in the return to pre-Covid life once the crisis dies down. Have people become too used to a world without museum visits? What can museums do to entice the public back through their doors once it’s safe to do so? And has the long absence served to make the heart go fonder; or simply broken the visiting habit.

Let’s take a closer look at the role of museums in a post-COVID society.

Digital is a replacement for now; it will be complementary in the long term

Throughout the pandemic, museums have explored digital alternatives designed to immerse online visitors in content that will delight, entertain and educate them during the weeks and months that the physical exhibits remain unavailable and inaccessible.

By partnering with Google Arts and Culture, more than 1200 global museums and art institutions were able to welcome millions of visitors through their virtual doors in 2020 – from Le Louvre to the Sistine Chapel to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul.

Or how about the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where a 360-degree, high resolution tour of the famous Gallery of Honour, puts works such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch but a click away (see other ways Rijksmuseum have innovated with digital here). Audiences are able to ‘walk’ through the gallery at their own pace, zooming in on every detail and listening to carefully adapted audio descriptions.

These kinds of initiatives have proven extremely popular during lockdown. Hashtags like #museumfromhome, #ArTyouready, #WorkOfTheDay and #LouvreChezVouz were all used to highlight museum works on social media, giving people the chance to experience them from home.

Despite the fact that many of these online experiences have been hugely successful, we shouldn’t confuse this enthusiasm with a growing apathy towards the physical experience. One needs only to tap into the online communities being cultivated by museums – there are Facebook groups, forums and book clubs aplenty for those who are interested – and the appetite for a full sensory experience remains undiminished.

What this period of reflection is doing, it seems, is building anticipation and giving culture lovers the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of their favourite subject matter. So, once those physical doors open to the public again, what would simply have been an enjoyable and enlightening day out will feel “more like a pilgrimage”, as one museum marketing professional recently described it.

If anything, the emphasis on readily-accessible content and the wealth of digital resources across websites, apps and social media has opened exhibitions up to a whole new audience – a younger, tech savvy audience. This is good news indeed, as it means that future generations of visitors are being introduced to the museum experience on the devices and platforms they use on a daily basis

Museums are essential for both reflection and understanding

The stereotype of a museum as a lofty establishment that is somewhat distanced from the tech-obsessed modern world has always been a clunky and simplistic one. But the integration of the digital and the physical has certainly come on in leaps and bounds over the last 12 months. Digital transformations have taken place of necessity, yet in most cases they have also been done with a sustainable future in mind – where digital solutions will work harmoniously with traditional mediums.

Initiatives like the V&A’s ‘Pandemic Objects’ case study and the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design’s ‘Let’s Face It’ mask challenge have helped to support the argument that museums are here to try and make sense of the world around us (see more on curating covid here). When eventually museums can open their doors to visitors, people will no doubt look to these institutions for some level of reflection and understanding about the chaos we’ve all been through.

Preparing for the return of the public

As museums eagerly await the return of visitors, it’s important to recognise that there will be a new layer to visitor preparations. As well as offering an entertaining and educational experience, museums will also need to provide a safe one.

Visitors may understandably be wary of braving public spaces for many months to come. And the onus is on institutions to show that they are safe havens rather than risky destinations. Fortunately, many have already adopted intelligent ticketing and queue management systems alongside basic health and safety protocols. These will provide reassurance in the short term, and in the long term we can expect that they will simply become part of a smooth, seamless process that elevates the visitor experience: think less jostling, more time to enjoy exhibitions and a more intimate feel.

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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