Refresh, Reevaluate, Reconnect

At the beginning of 2021, the Cultural Practices Magazine editorial team put out a call for papers on the theme of change using the broad headings of ‘Refresh, Reevaluate, Reconnect’. We want to thank everyone who responded to our call with such thoughtfulness, generosity and creativity. The strength of the submissions means we will release this issue over a period of three months. We begin with ‘Refresh’ and will release ‘Reevaluate’ in May, followed by ‘Reconnect’ in June. Our hope is that this gives you time to reflect on and perhaps be inspired by the range of practice covered in these articles. We see the papers included in this issue as an important addition to the already rich record of pandemic practice captured by the Cultural Practices Magazine, which posted its first article in April 2020 in response to the first UK lockdown. One year on, and much like our call, we also consider this a moment to refresh, reevaluate and perhaps most importantly reconnect with a world of cultural practice that is not necessarily shaped and determined by the impact of Covid-19. The three papers included in Refresh help us begin this process.

In her survey paper Alexandra Woodall captures a wide-range of reconfigured object-led museum teaching produced in response to new and wholly unexpected on-line audiences created by the pandemic. Using Twitter, a platform which over the last year has played an important role in supporting dialogue between cultural practitioners, Woodall gathered evidence of the reactionary practices that came out of the abrupt closure of museums worldwide. As she shows in her paper, practitioners have adopted a diverse range of context, economic and culturally specific strategies for keeping audiences in conversation and engaged with objects. For Woodall, her “gathering process” as she calls it is just the beginning. By mapping this shift in practice she sees the opportunity to consider the pandemic as a starting point for future research into materiality and object-led teaching and how we might now embed some of what we have learnt into the everyday of museum education.

For her paper, Stella Toonen draws on the change and uncertainty she witnessed during her PhD research into community co-curation under pandemic conditions. She describes both the experiences of researching and observing what, in some cases, was radical change in museum-community relations. Toonen makes a number of insightful observations on the importance of uncertainty and its role in facilitating change. The Queen’s Museum, one of three case studies she focuses on in the article, reconfigured its understanding of what it meant to have civic and community responsibilities by becoming a food bank site and facilitating support networks for community members. Toonen’s argument is that as the three art museums became less constrained by a ‘business as usual’ model they gained something; the capacity to centre the process of building responsive social spaces that met the immediate needs of their respective communities.

In this issue’s final paper, Lina Fitzjames; Amie Kirby and Marnie Parker, three MA students from the University of Manchester’s Art Gallery and Museum Studies programme, reflect on their experiences of studying, relationship building and creative producing during lockdown. They draw on three interconnected ideas, remote collaboration, the importance of wellbeing and structural inequalities which allows them to focus on the limitations and potentialities for digital exhibition making both in lockdown and in post-Covid futures. As they developed their digital exhibitions, and built spaces for collections that audiences from around the world could access, the process raised questions for the cohort, particularly how organisations need to maintain these new levels of accessibility to exhibitions and collections once the pandemic is over.

The three papers raise a timely question. What does it mean to refresh our knowledge of cultural practices in this current moment? How should we reflect on the (sometimes positive) changes made during a period of global isolation, trauma and loss? In the UK context from which I write we are slowly, tentatively, and in some cases, impatiently emerging from lockdown. Standing on this cusp of a refreshed, albeit reconfigured, cultural economy it feels important to ask what we have learnt about cultural practice after a year of venue and institutional closures, furloughed staff, job cuts and a decimated creative industries sector. In refreshing our practices, structures and institutions in light of much changed circumstances, we have the opportunity to reconsider the value of pre-pandemic knowledge and in the process, not only remind ourselves of what we once knew but reevaluate its usefulness to a post-pandemic society. 

Emma Martin

Editor, CP Magazine