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Never let a crisis go to waste: How museums and galleries are using lockdown to their advantage

Elizabeth Walsh looks at how national museums and galleries are adapting to the current crisis.

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Image Credit: York Festival of Ideas, 2020

Thursday the 4th June saw the third day of York’s Festival of Ideas get underway. The evening event entitled ‘Museums and Galleries: locked down, but not locked out’ saw an expert panel including the University of York’s very own Michael White of the Department of History of Art, discuss some of the most pressing issues on the cultural agenda. These included the provisions that museums and galleries are currently putting in place to combat the limitations posed by visitors being unable to physically attend sites, and how they are looking towards the future.

The panel was led by Jonathan Derbyshire, the acting Deputy World News Editor for the Financial Times. In the title of this article, I have drawn upon a quote that Jonathan referenced which particularly resonated with me. Not only as a seemingly perfect summary of the discussions led by the panel, but of the resilient attitude of the cultural sector more generally. As was continuously reiterated, museums and galleries are refusing, alongside the rest of the world, to be defeated by the Corona Virus. If anything, they are using these unprecedented times to their advantage, to reconnect with communities and rethink their strategies.

Frances Morris, the Director of Tate Modern art gallery in London was the first to discuss how they are navigating the lockdown. She began by considering the lessons these times have taught, including the honest reflection that the Tate Modern needs to better serve the demographic of London and build long term relationships, especially with the local community. She elaborated that the Tate Modern’s local audience is predominantly made up of black and ethnic minority groups as well as families from low income backgrounds. If anything, the lockdown has in her view, highlighted the need to return to the ‘drawing board’ and listen to and reach out to the local community.

Morris recognised the significant role the Tate Modern has to play in the economic and cultural welfare of the neighbourhood of Southwark, drawing upon the increased desire for children’s educational content in particular. Later in the discussion, Morris revealed how when in conversation with Sally Tallant, the Executive Director of Queens Museum in New York, she had been encouraging people to access Tate Kids. From this she drew the very important message that during these times museums don’t need to compete, but that they can share resources and work together, a lesson that is also applicable to wider society.

As well as the need to incorporate the views of the local community, another key point raised by the panel was the importance of using what we’ve got. Brendan Cormier, the Senior Design Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum explained how they have adapted and changed platforms in the form of a blog. His talk emphasised the importance of focusing on the ‘here and now’ and the blog entitled ‘Pandemic Objects’ certainly achieves this. The V&A Museum hopes to look at the pandemic through the lens of objects, highlighting the often overlooked role they play in mediating everyday life. Seemingly ordinary objects such as sewing machines and handwritten signs have, in Cormier’s view, been given a new meaning and lease of life in the midst of the pandemic. He hopes that the blog will eventually lead  to the acquisition of the campaigns responses and can be found here:

The speakers on the panel emphasised the importance of interactivity and that keeping people engaged was vital. Morris detailed how some of the Tate Modern’s existing exhibitions had been ‘resurrected’ and put online including the Andy Warhol exhibition, attracting huge audiences. Reyahn King, the Chief Executive of York Museums Trust also highlighted some of their successes. She argued that, ‘new challenges, circumstances and opportunities needed new answers.’ One of those answers came in the form of weekly curator battles on social media, with the theme of the third week gaining 1.5 million views. By offering projects that are more participatory, she is hoping to encourage people to be more creative.

Despite the optimistic outlook of the panel, the difficulties that come with the reality of navigating new online alternatives were not overlooked. Michael White acknowledged that gallery going is a social pursuit. As a result, viewing art from a virtual room can result in what he described as ‘a disembodied social presence’ resulting in a less satisfying experience. In line with this, there are also the issues of accessibility with not everyone being able to get online. Frances Morris returned to the example of her correspondence with the Queens Museum and explained how they have attempted to combat this. She explained how they have been sending postcards of works of art to senior audiences which are followed up by phone conversations.

As the discussion was rounded off, the message that  reigned loud and clear throughout each speaker’s talk, was that what could be seen as a limiting and negative time has breathed new life into the creativity and optimistic outlooks of museums and galleries across the country. One thing is for sure, they certainly are not letting the ‘crisis go to waste’. The talk can be watched again here:

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