For close to a year now, daily life has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the virus’s spread has been catastrophic for the daily lives of millions of people. Not surprisingly, media attention has focused on little else as infection rates and death tolls have soared.
With the doors to museums, galleries, theatres and other cultural venues shut, the arts have been pushed to invest time and effort in their online presence – something that any regular reader of MuseumNext will have seen covered from a range of perspectives in recent months.
But perhaps the most interesting feature of this digital transformation is the growing role of institutions as documenters, commentators and interpreters of current events. Even history museums have looked to reposition and frame themselves in the light of current events – with online collections, community activities and forums shaped by the context of this very unique time in human history.
Of course, museums have never existed in a vacuum. But such is the nature of the current social climate and the mediums through which organisations can share information that many feel cultural institutions must be more relevant and “of the moment” than ever before.
Art in times of crisis
We should acknowledge that the arts have been here before. There’s never been a time in history when people stop contemplating the human condition, and in times of hardship we often find incredible examples of creativity and expression. When the world becomes dark, chaotic and scary, people turn to art.
Whether it’s the work of artists like Chagall in the years that followed Nazi oppression; or the graphic novels of Art Speigelman after 9/11, we know that grief and tragedy are recurring themes that demand contemplation.
A pandemic is a very different scenario to a global war or a terrorist attack, but what is most remarkable about this time in history is the immediacy of connection and the reach of art delivered online.
Artists and museums alike have been using creative methods to explore the various consequences of the COVID-19 crisis in their work and exhibitions. Among the most well-documented example of this has been the V&A’s Pandemic Objects exhibition: an online series examining the seemingly unremarkable items that have taken on new meaning over the course of the pandemic. From toilet rolls to sourdough bread, the collection succeeds in capturing the scale and the strangeness of the crisis so far.
Similarly, the Historical Museum of Urahoro in Japan asked residents to contribute objects that represent their experience of the pandemic, creating a small exhibition which included take-away menus, remote learning instructions, face masks, print outs of festival cancellation emails, and even remote instructions for attending a funeral. The end result is a powerful and emotional commentary on the global impact of the virus.
Bringing people together
As well as shining a light on the impact of the pandemic, what these kinds of exhibitions also achieve is a sense of togetherness. When viewers take in the various objects and works that represent the experiences of others, they will no doubt see many elements of their own pandemic experience reflected back at them. We have all been forced to get used to a new way of operating, and reflecting on that through art provides a sense that we are not suffering alone.
While there is no doubt that museums’ willingness to move their collections and exhibitions online has given millions of people the opportunity to engage with their favourite, world-renowned works in a new and digital way through 2020 and into 2021, these new collections have perhaps resonated with us more than even the most captivating priceless portrait.
The culture sector has fought hard to keep creativity alive throughout these turbulent and trying times, giving museums fans chances to escape, educate and enrich their lockdown experience. To find out more about the way in which museums and galleries have transformed and tackled the challenges of the last 12 months, don’t miss the MuseumNext Digital Summit in February 2021.
About the author – Tim Deakin
Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.