By Hyewon CHOI, Jeju National Museum, South Korea
Under the new norm of ‘social distancing’, cultural institutions around the world are facing one of the biggest challenges in their history. In South Korea, museums and art galleries have been allowed to open their doors after two months of shutdown as a result of the decreasing number of newly reported COVID-19 cases. Hyewon CHOI reports on how museums in South Korea have maintained engagement with audiences during lockdown, and how they are preparing to reopen their doors to visitors.
Since the first case of COVID-19 reported on January 25th 2020, there have been around 10,800 patients in South Korea, with 9,500 patients treated and released from quarantine. Around 260 out of a million have died, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Since February 25th 2020 all national museums and art galleries have been shut down to prevent the spread of the virus.
During the lockdown, museums reached out to audiences online. Actively using their official social media accounts, such as YouTube or Instagram,they have been posting short behind-the-scenes videos. Some of this content has taken the form of a live TV show, in partnership with ‘Naver’, one of the biggest Web search engine platforms in South Korea. The National Museum of Korea has offered virtual tours using images from their collections, compiled in the early 2010s in partnership with Google Arts and Culture. To prompt further interaction with audiences during the lockdown, museums also launched an online competition titled ‘I am a Curator at Home’, which used e-museum, the joint collections database for museums and art galleries in Korea. The most ‘liked’ posting will be selected to form the basic plan for the next exhibition in the National Museum of Korea.
Over the past twenty days, fewer than twenty new COVID-19 cases per day have been reported (Korea Times, May 8th, 2020). Encouraged by this decrease, the Korean government has lowered the level of social distancing from ‘strict’ to ‘relaxed’, while recommending the public to continue following the basic virus anti-spreading guidance. The national response level to COVID-19 remains ‘severe’ – the highest level – as there still are risks of local outbreaks that may occur at any time (Korea Times, May 8th, 2020). On May 6th 2020 and as social distancing has been relaxed, national museums partially reopened their exhibition halls. Yet, it is acknowledged that if another outbreak happens, museums will close again.
As museums are re-opening parts of their exhibition galleries, they need to be multi-tasking to respond to the post-lockdown realities and needs of museum visiting. The first thing museums are doing is taking all possible measures to prevent further spread of the virus within their premises. Only a limited number of visitors per day are admitted via an online reservation system. In the case of a large museum such as the National Museum of Korea, which had around 30,000 thousand visitors a day before the COVID-19 outbreak, visitors are strongly advised to make online reservations in advance. Fewer than 2,000 people a day are allowed in. Museum staff are equipped with thermometers to use on any visitors who show signs of fever at admission.
In addition, several precautionary measures have been taken before museums reopened: Antimicrobial films have been attached to gates and door handles, and around 300 bottles of hand sanitiser have been distributed to each museum along with face coverings for visitors to use. All members of staff must also wear face coverings at all times. In addition, the cleaners wipe the floor and handles with antiseptic solutions and the building’s spaces are fumigated at the end of the day, after the museum is closed.
Admission procedures are as follows. First, museum staff check if the visitor is wearing a facial covering. Second, visitors are asked to use the hand sanitisers, followed by thermal checks. Third, staff review the online reservation records in comparison with the visitor’s confirmation slip. Admission may be denied if the visitor refuses to wear a facial covering or to follow the listed admission process.
Signposts in front of the exhibition halls remind the visitors to make sure to keep their face covering on at all times and keep the 2m distance from other people.
Regional national museums with smaller visitor numbers, like the Jeju National Museum, have launched an on-site reservation system available for those who haven’t made a reservation in advance. This also involves asking visitors to sign an agreement form that includes their names and contact details. This information is collected to contact visitors if there is a newly reported COVID-19 case among the people who visited the museum while they were there at the same time.
While the National Museum of Korea opted to engage with audiences online after re-opening, other museums had to approach post-lockdown museum visiting in different ways. The Jeju National Museum is located on the Jeju island. The island has only eight NPIRs (Negative-pressure Isolation Rooms) to treat COVID-19 patients; therefore strong social distancing regulations are maintained for two more weeks starting from May 5th 2020 (Yonhap News Agency, May 9th, 2020). Jeju National Museum educators have come up with a museum box using a drive-thru system. Designed for family participants, there are four different boxes that include colouring worksheets and museum collection handouts. Some are equipped with DIY shadow doll play kits for children themed after the Jeju museum’s local myths.
The participants who have made reservations online are able to pick up their kit from the museum gate in their cars, minimising the risk of infection. Instructions are given through the museum’s social media accounts, which serve as supporting material for the box.
What needs to be kept in mind is that the national museums described here are governmental organisations under the administration of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. In accordance with the recommendation of the KCDC (Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention), the central government arranged the entire process that is carried out in museums. The cost for reopening comes from national tax income, distributed by the central government.
For now, it seems that museums are prepared to welcome visitors back. Museum staff are aware that the number of visitors will be around one-third of last year and is going to continue dropping until a vaccine is developed. To cope with the significant decrease of visitor numbers, they are focusing on transferring museum engagement online and developing alternative ways of engaging visitors, such as the drive-thru museum boxes. There are lessons to be learnt about how museums perceive themselves and are perceived by others in times of crisis, and this will take time. Hopefully, those creative ways of thinking about museums and museum visiting will not disappear, but help museum professionals in Korea think about the future and value of museums.
E-museum. “Homepage.” Accessed May 5th, 2020.
Jeju National Museum. “Jeju Museum At Home.” Instagram, May 9, 2020.
Korea Times. “Imported virus cases jump amid relaxed social distancing” Last modified May 8th, 2020.
Korea Times. “15 coronavirus cases confirmed after patient’s visit to Itaewon club” Last modified May 8th, 2020.
Ministry of Health and Welfare. “Coronavirus Disease-19, Republic of Korea” Accessed May 8th, 2020.
National Museum of Korea. Accessed May 6th, 2020.
National Museum of Korea. “Come for an amazing new experience at the National Museum of Korea!” Instagram, May 4th, 2020.
National Museum of Korea. “Exhibitions Online- VR” Accessed May 4th, 2020.
Naver. “About Naver.” Accessed May 6th, 2020.
Yonhap News Agency. “Jeju Island to keep social distancing rules intact” Last modified May 9th, 2020.
Hyewon Christina CHOI is a curatorial assistant in Jeju National Museum in South Korea and an MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies, University of Manchester alumna.