By Frances Liddell, Institute for Cultural Practices 

Frances Liddell asks what researchers can do to help the museum sector during COVID-19. In considering the materials created by museums during lockdown, she finds that her question could be answered through exploring the vast amounts of content available online.

No question about it, there are new challenges, but in the face of these challenges there are also new opportunities 
Brendan Ciecko, (2020)

I’ve been invited to another zoom quiz, one of the many that will be happening this week. Since lockdown began, the online world has ignited with activity. From Tik Tok videos and the Houseparty app, to Instagram parties and Zoom quizzes and yoga sessions, it appears many of us are more sociable than ever now that government policy has restricted our physical contact. This communication is not limited to simply our friends and family. Whether it is through the Blockchain Institute’s weekly webinars, ‘Drinking about Museums’events, ‘#MuseumHour’ on Twitter, or the influx of podcasts and other resources, I have found myself feeling even closer to the communities associated with my areas of research. These various events have offered an opportunity to highlight the struggles these sectors face during COVID-19. This is particularly resonating with the museum sector where the physical spaces are closed for business and these digital spaces are the only forms of contact with audiences and with other museum professionals. In this respect, our digital contacts and networks are significant tools during this pandemic and ones which the museum sector are embracing as part of their strategy during lockdown.

Thinking about Museums 

Amid the content on offer, two events have stuck with me during this lockdown period. The first event took place during the first week of UK lockdown called ‘Drinking about Museums’. ‘Drinking about Museums’ is an ongoing initiative which brings together museum professionals around the world for a ‘digital’ happy hour to encourage networking, conversation and support for those working in the sector. Multiple time zones are catered for through hosts in different countries so that those working in the sector globally can take part and meet others for a chat and a beverage. The Manchester event, organised by fellow ICP PhD student Maria Paula Arias, was well attended with a mixture of fellow ICP faculty, researchers, students, and museum professionals. An interesting question was raised during this session; as researchers, what can we do to help the museum sector at this time? 

The second event has helped to develop this question. This event took place over Twitter during a COVID-19 special ‘MuseumHour’. A question was asked about museum online content for audiences at home during this pandemic. This topic highlighted an important point on the concept of value, which prompted me to think about the value of creating meaningful content for people at home. In thinking about these two ideas together, to what extent can we find the answer to this question amidst the influx of new digital communication and content?

Highlighting Value

From learning about the risk of theft in museums with the Art Newspaper’s podcast, to hearing from fellow tweeters about their experiences and favourite museums using the various hashtags on Twitter (#museumunlocked,#museumfromhome#museumhour), we can agree that there are vast amounts of information and digital content out at the moment offering insight, education and entertainment. Scroll down to the comments sections and you will see that this content is greatly appreciated. Museums offer digital escapes from life at a time when people are desperate to remove themselves from this strange situation. For the furloughed, the stressed parent, and the isolated individual, this digital content can offer solace and entertainment. Take, for example, the Tate website which offers how to guides for both adults and kids to paint in different artist styles. Or explore the #MuseumJigsaws hashtag on Twitter to enjoy an absorbing digital jigsaw of a museum artefact. In this way, museums provide an important service for people during this time of COVID-19; they offer a moment to remove themselves from their own lives and feel part of a community. Indeed, museums create value through this meaningful content.

Digital Jigsaw of Portrait of Mis Tyas, Abel Hold, Barnsley Museums. 

As we have seen in the increase in literature on the subject (Janes, 2010; Silverman and Silverman, 2010; Dodd, 2015; Whelan, 2015), museums hold social and cultural value in the work they do for society.  In his discussion of the ‘Let’s Get Real’ projects by Culture24, Sejul Malde proposes the term ‘cultural social value’ as a way of describing the work carried out by cultural organisations which engages in social purpose but also uses the intrinsic value of experiencing art and culture (Malde and Kennedy, 2018, p. 37). Therefore, cultural social value as a term summarises this social role of museums. This idea resonates to the digital work of museums during this pandemic as museums are harnessing the digital and their collections to bring people closer together digitally. The hashtag campaigns of #metwinning and #gettymuseumchallenge are exemplar in this idea as audiences are invited to search the Met Museum’s and the Getty Institute’s collections and recreate them in real life. 

The Botanist’s Daughter by Chistrian Schloe, recreated by charliethetuna1 using flowers, budget wig and construction paper, Instagram. Permission given by artist

In doing so, participants are encouraged to engage and experience the art in these collections while also connecting with others through social media and so these campaigns aim to bring people together digitally through the power of art. Therefore, research into the social role of museums can be applied to this current situation in the museum sector as the content created by and for museums is socially valuable for online communities and audiences. 

In looking to the future and beyond lockdown, it will be important to highlight this value for museums. Revenues will be squeezed, and grants will be more difficult to obtain as the economy attempts to recover from this period of lockdown. In returning to the question of what we can do as researchers, our role should be to highlight the value museums are creating during this time and provide supporting research which can be used by museums in the creation of economic value. In this way, we have a responsibility to support the sector through evidence and research. The future is uncertain, but in the face of these challenges, museums have found opportunity through the creation of cultural social value. In the same way, we should find opportunity to support our sector in the face of COVID-19.

References 

Ciecko,B. (2020) ‘Thinking Outside the Box to Reach Audiences Inside Their Homes’ Cuseum (Accessed 30 April 2020).

Dodd, J. (2015) ‘The Socially Purposeful Museum’, Museologica Brunensia, (2015) pp. 28–32.

Janes, R. R. (2010) ‘The Mindful Museum’, Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(3), pp. 325–338. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2010.00032.x.

Malde, S. and Kennedy, A. (2018) Let’s Get Real 6: Connecting digital practices with social purpose. London: Culture24 (Accessed: 2 April 2019).

Silverman, L. H. (2010) The Social Work of Museums. London and New York: Routledge.

Whelan, G. (2015) ‘Understanding the social value and well-being benefits created by museums: A case for social return on investment methodology’, Arts & Health, 7(3), pp. 216–230. doi: 10.1080/17533015.2015.1065574.

Author

Frances Liddell is a second-year PhD student at the Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester. Working with the National Museums Liverpool, her research explores how blockchain technology might be implemented in museums to cultivate a sense of collective and psychological ownership between a museum and its audiences. 

frances.liddell@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk
@francesliddell

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