Museums are secure active public arenas where human societies can turn to in search of answers in times of cultural identity crisis. As cultural institutions with a global presence, museums wield material culture and curatorial capabilities that enable them to possibly facilitate conversations on identity questions faced by societies. Questions like, what it means to be human, what is the origin of distinct cultural groups, how should nations remember their past and what does the future hold for civilizations. For example, the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha Eastern Cape, South Africa, uses its collections of the Nelson Mandela legacy to serve communities whose social identity has been disrupted by a history of racial divides instituted during the apartheid era in the country. This role of museums is more relevant today, particularly as the pandemic is causing hefty disruptions in the social order of many societies. Covid-19 restrictions leave many disconnected from their cultural and social fabric. Consequently, the time is now for the global museum community to strengthen intangible cultural values that thread communities together.
Covid-19 and Culture Disruptions
The pandemic has compelled nations abruptly abandon their day-to-day genetically inherent cultural traits and traditions like hugging, kissing and shaking of hands, these practices created sense of acceptance and belonging for many. Cultural fabrics of nations are being thrown in disarray. For example, societies that identify themselves with their performing and fine arts are unable to practice their culture as usual. Most sadly survivors of Covid-19 are learning to live without the people they most identified with. This sudden change occurs at a time when traditional cycles of support in the form of familiar grief rituals is a thing of the past. Due to social distancing measures and the fear of infection, Covid-19 survivors may find themselves dealing with identity turning points on their own. However, museums as key cultural institutions can possibly offer culture therapy to their constituents.
Museums and Identity Conversations
Museums collect and curate objects that form part of cultural identities of many societies. Through exhibitions and educational programmes, museums can be a forum for cultural discussions. In-spite of the fact that the pandemic is disrupting cultural practices and self-image of many, museums remain social spaces where members of the public can visit to reassure themselves of their cultural identities.
Museums and Fostering a Sense of Belonging
The museum with its rich endowments of collections has the soft power to reposition society’s cultural image and foster a sense of group belonging. For example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, through its exhibits of African American slavery as well as struggle for justice, shows how museums can help communities maintain their identity in the face of adversity. Through shared heritage humanity can find meaning in life within museum walls albeit virtually. Covid-19 survivors who may be possibly grieving in isolation are more likely to feel disconnected from their community. Nevertheless, interaction with great works of art in museums is another way to mentally connect with one’s cultural identity. Most ethnographic museums own collections of material culture symbolic of strength, customs, and values and acquired capabilities which connected represented societies together. These objects may be most meaningful when used to sustain cultures that are being disassembled by the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic compels museums to reassess their mode of operations in order to be relevant in a precarious age of cultural transition. However, the pandemic is also a chance for museums to prove their meaningful role in the cultural sphere of their societies. The museum institution has an opportunity to participate in the cultural transition of its communities while preserving cultures that are gradually becoming history. Lastly, Covid-19 pandemic poses a challenge for museums to facilitate and actively participate in reshaping cultural identities of museum societies.
About the author – Goabaone Montsho
Goabaone Montsho is a museum professional working for Botswana National Museum. He works as a curator under the ethnology division of Botswana National Museum His job entails curating thematic exhibitions, documenting ethnographic collections and disseminating cultural information to both international and local museum audiences. Montsho also works with researchers and students conducting research in the museum. He graduated with a Bachelors of Arts Degree with a major in Anthropology (2010- 2014) from Vancouver Island University in Canada. Furthermore, He attained a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration (2016- 2018) from the university of Botswana.
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