COVID-19: Which foreseeable future for European art museums?

By Justine Le Floch

In the last decade, the digitization of culture and heritage has become more than a matter of heritage preservation. It has “radically [changed] cultural consumption and production patterns, obliging museums to rethink how they relate to their audiences as users of cultural content.” [1] In this way, museums were forced to open up to a wider range of visitors by endeavouring to broaden their community scope through new digital initiatives. 

As the digitization of collections has been shown to attract more visitors inside their walls, museums have “systematically intensified their efforts and initiatives to broaden and deepen their community connection while prioritising audience engagement.” [2] But it is mostly the digitalization of this content which interests us here. On the distinction between the two terms, digitization is “the straightforward process of converting analog information to digital—[…] for instance, by scanning a document or uploading a sound recording.” While digitalization “refers to the use of digital technology, and probably digitized information, to create and harvest value in new ways.” [3]

To take on the words of MaryAnne Gobble, “software isn’t just eating the world; it’s completely remaking it.” [ibid] Having understood the importance of this reality, museums have opened the way to more and more digital content, finding new strategies to become more “porous with [their] environment.” [4] Not seen as a replacement to onsite visit, but rather as a complement to it, online tours and collection displays have inspired visitors to engage and participate in the life of museums. 

However, museums were “just starting to measure the impact of everyone being connected via [the] Internet” when Covid-19 appeared. [ibid] They had no other choice than finding alternative ways to keep touch with their audience. If before spring 2020 they were very careful with which content they were releasing online, afraid of potential competition and of the consequences of “low reproduction,” they have quickly multiplied online content on their website and social media after the beginning of the pandemic. [5] For some scholars, it is almost like lockdowns throughout Europe have sort of “magnified the place of culture,” creating however “inequalities of cultural consumption.” [6] Many museums have digitized objects never displayed before, which they had been jealously keeping for themselves and which are now available to all online. [7] What will art museums become then, after undergoing such a crisis in which the digital world seems to take onto their traditional roles as cultural mediators? Will museums ever manage to bring back their audience to their premises in the same conditions as they used to before the pandemic?

The Covid crisis seems to have blurred the line between these exhibition spaces and what used to be their virtual extension. Ultimately, it may help lead them towards postdigital policies, with “public engagement and programming that no longer makes a reductive choice between ‘digital’ and ‘nondigital’, but instead anticipates a blend of the two, an embodied augmentation of one with the other.” [8] More generally, the pandemic has unveiled an important potential for art museums, both economically and in terms of digital opportunities through their fast responses in order to engage with their audience staying at home and “[maintaining] their informal education.” [9] 

On the other hand, the health crisis also threatens the museal sector financially and socially. And one knows how important art museums are to the cultural field. Indeed, “’culture,’ […]  is seen as a focal point, from which radiate not only opportunities in economic terms, but also – and maybe more importantly – the hope for a change of identity of the transforming societies.” In this context, “[arts museum] have come to be considered a sine qua non of every self-respecting regeneration plan.” [10] 

Today, it is hard to assess precisely to which extent the pandemic will affect art museums. The various lockdowns have impacted them economically for sure, but have they lost their audience or have they won new ones?  The crisis might have put an end to the visits as we knew them, as the ubiquitous presence of digital tools seem to have become a part of how museums interact with their audience. If some visitors like myself cannot wait to go back to visit physically these premises, maybe now is the occasion to try out new things and see what online platforms have to offer. One thing is certain: it is us, the visitors, who can help shaping new ways of visiting museums in the post-Covid period to come.


Bibliography

[1] Bertacchini, Enrico and Federico Morando. “The Future of Museums in the Digital Age: New Models for Access to and Use of Digital Collections.” International Journal of Arts Management 15, no. 2, 2013, pp. 60-72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24587113.
[2] Giannini, Tula and Bowen, Jonathan. “The Digital Future for Museums”. Museums and Digital Culture: New Perspectives and Research, 2019, pp. 551-574. 
[3] Gobble, MaryAnne M. “Digitalization, Digitization, and Innovation”. Research-Technology Management 61, no. 4, July 2018, pp. 56–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/08956308.2018.1471280.
[4] Giannini, Tula, and Jonathan P. Bowen. Museums and Digital Culture: New Perspectives and Research. Springer Series on Cultural Computing. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-97457-6.
[5] Bertacchini, Enrico and Federico Morando. “The Future of Museums in the Digital Age: New Models for Access to and Use of Digital Collections.”
[6] Benhamou, Françoise. “Crise de l’Archipel Culturel”. Esprit, n° 467, 2020, pp. 47.
[7] Mugnier Hélène. “Le Sens de la Visite”. Esprit, n° 467, 2020, pp. 88-96. https://esprit.presse.fr/article/helene-mugnier/le-sens-de-la-visite-42927.
[8] Parry, Ross. “The End of the Beginning: Normativity in the Postdigital Museum”. Museum Worlds 1, no. 1, 1 July 2013, pp. 24–39. https://doi.org/10.3167/armw.2013.010103.
[9] Network of European Museums Organisations. “NEMO Survey on Museums and COVID-19”, 2020. https://www.ne-mo.org/advocacy/our-advocacy-work/museums-during-covid-19.html.
[10] Baniotopoulou, Evdoxia. “Art for Whose Sake? Modern Art Museums and Their Role in Transforming Societies: The Case of Guggenheim Bilbao”. Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 7, no. 0, 12 March 2001. https://doi.org/10.5334/jcms.7011.

Picture Credits: Una Laurencic, Pexels

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