After the pandemic: fairer, more sustainable and social museums?

Museums around the world, after weeks deserted, see the long-awaited return to the (new) normality closer. Having taken security and preventive conservation measures to protect collections and facilities, what has happened to the other two essential vectors for museums to exist, their professionals and visitors? What have the museum management leaders done to maintain the jobs of their staff and to maintain the public service they have been offering to society?

A health, social and economic crisis such as the one we are experiencing could be the lever of change to correct certain paths that museums have circulated in recent years. The pandemic is an opportunity that should not be missed to return us to fairer, more sustainable and social museums.

Workers in danger

On the impact it has had among museum professionals, there is a case that clearly illustrates the fragility of the museum ecosystem. In Spain, an institution as relevant as the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona applied a Temporary Employment Regulation File to its 57 workers.

On the other hand, the traditional policy of outsourcing services, some as essential and unquestionable to fulfill the mission of museums as educational ones, give us the most undesirable face of museums. If the lives of professionals working with these working conditions were precarious before the coronavirus appeared, now it is even more so. The MoMA in New York fired all education professionals who had provided their services as freelancers or freelancers.

Although it is not prudent to generalize from two specific cases, however relevant they may be, the truth is that they are valuable clues that reveal the dangerous path undertaken by some museums.

The screen strategy

As for the solution to continue offering its cultural services, virtualization has been the emergency strategy. Naturally, the response has been uneven. It is fair to value the good work of a few museums, which already allowed virtually visiting their permanent rooms and temporary exhibitions according to the formula 24/7/365. The National Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid is among that select and very small group.

Virtual room of the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum. / Santos M. Mateos

The virtual is nothing more than a substitute for the physical, but blessed are the digital substitutes that allow you to enjoy a temporary exhibition that closed years ago, expelling the adjective temporal from the equation: virtual samples do not have an expiration date.

Room of the virtual version of the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum.
Room of the virtual version of the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum. / Santos M. Mateos

The situation we are experiencing should spur museums to strengthen their virtual presence. If they did, it would be good if the potential of the digital ecosystem were explored and exploited, which undoubtedly allows going beyond the mirror model. Why does the temporary exhibition in virtual format have to be a simple mirror of physics? Interactive projects like the one Tate Britain did in London for its Francis Bacon exhibition, in a very distant 2008, marked a path that almost no one took. Now might be the time to go through it.

Virtual exhibition by Francis Bacon (Tate Britain).
Virtual exhibition by Francis Bacon (Tate Britain). / Santos M. Mateos

An opportunity to rethink museums

There is no doubt that museums will reopen their doors, getting ready with the necessary adaptations decreed by the health authorities. There is also no doubt that visitors will visit them again. The challenge is not there.

The pandemic should serve to overturn the pyrotechnic model that has been prevailing until now, a model where noise is unnecessary and nuts are missing, that of the empire of the quantitative over the qualitative. As Juan José Millás claimed, visiting a museum is not a form of consumption, it is a way of life.

A turn that could return us more just, sustainable and social museums. Here are some hints:

Fairer museums. A great opportunity to correct certain ‘modus operandi’ and avoid creating precarious work. Many museums have encouraged outsourcing of some services, an outsourced culture that has allowed them to have a workforce without worrying about their working conditions.

More sustainable museums. A great opportunity to readjust one of the museum’s instruments of action, the temporary exhibition. It is better to program a good sample, worked on low heat, supported by good research and in collaboration with other institutions (shared costs and assured roaming), than to propose five irrelevant ones.

More social museums. A great opportunity to have museums that ensure full accessibility. The saying “A museum that welcomes more than a hundred that expel” should be listened to.

They are not novel or radical proposals. In many museums labeled as “small” or “medium”, such as the National Museum of Sculpture (Valladolid), the Rede Museística Provincial de Lugo, Vilamuseu (La Vila Joiosa, Alicante), the Museo de Almería or the Museu Episcopal de Vic (Barcelona), accustomed to the war economy and with very close ties to the society they serve, has already taken this path to become fair, sustainable and social museums. You only need to look at them and consult excellent compasses such as the Museums + Social plan launched in 2015 by the Ministry of Culture of the Ministry of Culture of Spain.

This article has been published by The Conversation.

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