How museums are changing amid COVID and BLM protests: 'We’re working to capture this moment for future generations'

Rachel Grumman Bender
·8 min read
A staff member looks at a wall of faces of descendants related to the Mayflower, which part of the Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy exhibition, during a press preview for the UK's largest ever commemorative exhibition on the Mayflower, with works on loan from both Smithsonian and Peabody institutes in America, at The Box museum in Plymouth, Devon. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)
A staffer wears a face shield while at work at a museum. (Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

Both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests are shaping the way many U.S. companies conduct business — and museums are no exception.

With art institutions around the world having to temporarily shut their doors for months (and with only some now gradually reopening), it has forced museums to rethink how visitors could still access their art. At the same time, the continued protests against police brutality across the country and calls for racial justice have led some art institutions to reflect on the diversity of their own staff and art acquisitions, as well as their role as curators at this difficult time in history.

How the pandemic has tested museums

One of the biggest challenges that museums have faced during the pandemic is the economic cost of being closed for several months. A late July 2020 survey of more than 750 museum directors by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) revealed the “extreme financial distress” the pandemic has had on museums, which support 726,000 jobs and contribute $50 billion each year to the economy, according to the press release.

The survey estimates that one-third of all U.S. museums may permanently shut down due to COVID-19 closures and lack of funds.

“Museum revenue disappeared overnight when the pandemic closed all cultural institutions, and sadly, many will never recover,” Laura Lott, president and chief executive officer of AAM, said in the release. “Even with a partial reopening in the coming months, costs will outweigh revenue and there is no financial safety net for many museums. The distress museums are facing will not happen in isolation. The permanent closure of 12,000 museums will be devastating for communities, economies, education systems, and our cultural history.”

During the closures, art institutions had to get creative, with some offering virtual installations that people could explore from the comfort of their own homes. In partnership with museums and archivists, Google Arts and Culture created a nonprofit online platform that allows art lovers to virtually tour more than 2,000 museums around the world and more than 100,000 works of art in high definition.

Alise Fisher, the science press secretary for the Smithsonian Institution, tells Yahoo Life that the institution worked to provide “vast digital resources, content, and programming” to students, teachers, and caregivers while it was closed.

When the Smithsonian American Art Museum had to close before their planned March 20 exhibition on Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture, they had to get creative, adding instead “great online content related to this exhibition for the public to enjoy while we were closed,” says Fisher.

She adds: “In-gallery videos were re-edited so we could share them online, and the curator did a special last-minute video tour of the galleries. We also published a number of stories on the museum’s blog, and featured Humboldt in an episode of the Smithsonian’s Sidedoor Podcast.”

Virtual access to museums here to stay

While museums are gradually starting to reopen their physical locations, while following COVID-19 safety protocols, some are banking on the fact that interactive, online experiences are here to stay.

Before the pandemic, the Smithsonian launched Smithsonian Open Access — an initiative that released “nearly 3 million images for broader public use, for free,” says Fisher, allowing people to download the images without copyright restrictions so they can “reimagine and repurpose our collections in creative new ways,” according to the press release. “We have committed to continue to add items on an ongoing basis,” says Fisher.

She says that the Smithsonian’s goal is to reach 1 billion people a year with a “digital-first strategy,” adding: “The creation of new online platforms and resources will continue to be a priority for us.”

Smithsonian also teamed up with Verizon (Yahoo is owned by Verizon) to offer immersive educational experiences, meaning some of its most amazing exhibitions, including the 1903 Wright Flyer, a Supernova and Wooly Mammoth, can all be viewed in augmented reality. “Whether kids are returning to the physical classroom or remote learning, we need to continually think of new ways technology can help them engage with educational content,” said Sanyogita Shamsunder, Vice President of Technology Development and 5G Labs at Verizon. “With Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network and AR/VR, we can provide real-time educational content in a mobile environment, allowing students to take virtual field trips and share and interact with content and their instructors as if they were in the same location when, in fact, they could be miles apart. We can’t wait to see to the educational tools that result from this partnership.”

Explore some of the Smithsonian’s items in augmented reality below.

Some museums, however, won’t have a physical building at all. The new Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA), which is expected to launch soon, provides access to free art from all over the world. As the website states: “Without the limitations of a physical location, access to a museum is possible to anyone with an internet connection.”

But as existing physical museums start to reopen, they’ll look different. Art institutions will likely require ticket reservations with a dedicated time slot to reduce crowds. Just as grocery stores had dedicated hours for vulnerable older customers during the pandemic, museums may follow suit with special hours for elderly visitors. You also likely won’t find interactive exhibits that multiple people might touch, according to MuseumNext.

Art institutions’ role during protests

In addition to the pandemic, nationwide protests, along with ongoing calls for greater diversity, have also prompted changes at art institutions. As Manuel Charr writes in MuseumNext: “Many public institutions have come under even greater scrutiny over issues like racial diversity and representation since [George] Floyd died.”

Museums are becoming more diverse, but there’s still a long way to go. A 2018 survey by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the AAM, and the research firm Ithaka S+R, looked at more than 330 U.S. art museums and more than 30,000 employees. The survey showed that museum employees are becoming more diverse, as compared to their 2015 survey, which had found that “curators, educators, conservators, and museum leadership” were “84 percent white non-Hispanic.”

The survey noted “some meaningful progress in the representation of people of color in a number of different museum functions, including the curatorial,” as well as an increase in the number of women in museum leadership positions over the past three years. However, diversity in the “most senior leadership positions” has been slow to change.

The ongoing protests have, however, spurred some leaders at museums to speak out. At the General Session of the 2020 AAM Annual Meeting in June, Lott addressed the “senseless killing of Black people and unfathomable violence across our country.”

In her statement, Lott said, “The museum field not only has a responsibility to ask the hard questions and learn from each other; we have a unique duty to listen, to chronicle the lessons and histories of our communities, and to educate future generations so that we might stop this senseless violence.”

As curators of history, museums are in a unique position to document this challenging period in the U.S. The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has been accumulating about 300,000 items of protest art, as part of their political history collection. “We have been working with organizers and activists,” the museum’s curator, Tsione Wolde-Michael, told the U.K.’s The Guardian. (Yahoo Life reached out to Wolde-Michael but did not hear back immediately.) “We’re working to capture this moment for future generations, and it all happened under a pandemic. People are risking their lives to protest.”

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of American History, and Anacostia Community Museum formed a coalition to “document, collect and preserve the expressions of protest and hope in Washington, D.C.,” Fisher tells Yahoo Life. “The Smithsonian has been collecting at this time to ensure that this grassroots-led community movement and pivotal moment are accurately documented.”

Museums look to diversify their collections

Museums are also looking to make changes to their art acquisitions. Most notably, the board of trustees for Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y., recently put its “Red Composition, 1946” painting by Jackson Pollock up for auction in an effort to diversify its collection. The money raised will be used to “establish a fund for acquiring works created by artists of color, women artists, and other under-represented contemporary and mid-career artists,” according to the museum press release. The painting is estimated to fetch up to $18 million, according to Art News.

“The Everson aspires to be a leader in racial equity and anti-racist policies and programming,” Jessica Arb Danial, board chair of the Everson Museum, told Art News.

The Smithsonian is also focused on improving representation when it comes to its art collections and exhibits. For example, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has been “actively adding African American artists’ works to the collection,” Fisher tells Yahoo Life. “The museum has more than 1,000 works by William H. Johnson, and collections from Bill Traylor (and a recent major exhibition), Arthur Jafa and James Kerry Marshall,” as well as a Chicano graphics exhibition in November produced with the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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