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Museums during the Pandemic

Saki Yokoyama
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Museum Studies


The COVID-19 pandemic has closed many museums around the world. Exhibitions which had just opened in Tokyo from late February were effectively shut down after about two weeks. Some exhibitions which were just about to start were postponed, while other exhibitions were cancelled. Museums which are temporarily closed are unable to borrow works of art, to return works which they are currently borrowing, or to have works which they are lending returned. Since June, Japanese museums have been gradually reopening while implementing new systems such as hourly tickets. However, many museums in the United States still remain closed. These conditions constitute the first disaster that museums have faced in the 21st century.

The Spanish flu and museums

During a history of more than 200 years, modern museums have survived various disasters. For example, during World War Two, staff and curators at the Louvre Museum evacuated and protected art work in fear of Nazi raids. There is also another well-known episode in which the National Gallery in London remained open even in the midst of air raids and continued serving as an emotional support to citizens. Many museums have experienced natural disasters as well. During the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, curators rushed to museums in the affected area in order to rescue the collections. Afterwards, this experience was utilized to build the cultural heritage rescue network. In addition to responding promptly to the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, the network has also rescued cultural assets damaged by typhoons and floods.

However, few museums have ever experienced a pandemic. Indeed, the only example of a pandemic faced by museums would be the Spanish Flu, which happened more than 100 years ago. Even so, the existence and nature of viruses was unknown at the time, so it is easy to imagine that simply formulating an appropriate response to the Spanish Flu would have been difficult. For example, when the Spanish Flu ravaged the United States, museums took the following actions. An art gallery that later became part of the Oakland Museum of California was converted to an emergency hospital with 80 beds. In an effort to care for children who were forced to be absent from school, a museum in Rhode Island held a story hour on themes ranging from the lives of animals to natural scenery. In San Francisco, schools, cultural institutions, and government offices were closed. Conversely, in New York, there was no lockdown, so schools, theaters, and cinemas remained open, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art operated as usual without closing(1) . (Since New York took prompt measures and made information on the Spanish Flu known to the public, the mortality rate remained low compared to other cities.) In this way, the response of museums to the Spanish Flu varied greatly between cities.

Potential and disparities of virtual museums

In contrast, in response to COVID-19, museums around the world took steps to close simultaneously. According to a UNESCO report released this May, 90% of the 95,000 museums surveyed worldwide were closed. Nevertheless, many museums are still trying to take some sort of action during the closure, with a total of more than 800 such initiatives. The core of these initiatives is related to the concept of a virtual museum, with video exhibitions, online symposiums or programs, and so on. There are many museums which utilize SNS to publish programs such as coloring pages, quizzes, and games(2). Even in Japan, many museums are taking steps towards virtual operations; for example, blogs where curators hold passionate discussions about collections, videos featuring a guided explanation of collection rooms by curators, and the release of worksheets for creating art at home.

These virtual endeavors present us with new possibilities. One such possibility is that people who used to feel distanced from museums (people with health issues, people who are too busy with work to visit museums, etc.) can now easily access museums. The Guggenheim Museum in New York is one museum that is actively conducting online art appreciation programs. According to the educator, these programs are accessed by people who had been unable to participate in programs held from 4:00 PM , thus drawing new audiences to the museum(3). The virtual museum is becoming a new method to include people who had been alienated from museums for various reasons. At the same time, such initiatives are also an indispensable survival strategy for museums in situations where there are no real visitors to pay entrance fees (most online programs at the Guggenheim Museum are paid programs). UNESCO estimates that 10% of museum closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic are irreversible due to financial reasons. The restrictions placed on the movement of people will cause museum income to drastically decrease. Furthermore, it is expected that donations will decrease and that sponsors will be lost due to economic stagnation.

On the other hand, the concept of virtual museums also shines a light on the exclusion of specific groups and regions from online viewing. Approximately half of the world's population does not have Internet access. A gender gap in Internet access has also been indicated; specifically, 327 million fewer women have Internet access than men, and the number of women with digital literacy is only one-fourth that of men. When observing the situation by region, the contents of museums are digitized overwhelmingly in Western Europe and the United States. Conversely, the digitization rate of museums is only 5% in African countries and in Small Island Developing States in areas such as the Pacific Ocean, the West Indies, and the Indian Ocean(4). Although museum contents have been digitized and it has become possible to access museums around the world from wherever you are, the fact is that the gap between genders, regions, and museums is widening. In other words, "virtual" does not mean "universal."

Museums as social infrastructure

We do not know when COVID-19 will end. Therefore, museums will have to find ways to survive through virtual tools. Since museums have been based on the principle of displaying actual works for viewing, virtual tools up until now have been auxiliary. Unfortunately, the current conditions caused by COVID-19 have rendered that principle no longer applicable. As a result, we must reconfirm why museums have been focused on the real, and what the inherent social role of museums is.

Needless to say, the only thing which we can do in a museum space is to observe genuine works with our own eyes and exchange ideas with others who are observing the same works. The gallery talks which are currently held by many Japanese art museums are also known as "interactive art appreciation (based on Visual Thinking Strategy)". The educator facilitating the talks encourage participants to observe the art carefully with their own eyes and to engage in discussion with other participants. These discussions include points that caught participants' attention, why the attention was drawn, and the elicitation of opinions from others. Even when observing the same work, the points that attract attention and the reasons for appreciation will differ for each person. Holding discussions with others makes it possible to learn new ideas different from your own. Through this dialogue, participants may totally agree with each other, or they may end up feeling uncomfortable. The important thing is to understand that there are various ways to see and experience the same thing.

The social attitude of listening to the words of others, examining one's own thoughts, and then reconsidering your ideas is necessary for coexistence with diverse people. At the beginning of the UNESCO report, it is stated that museums are a space for dialogue which fulfills the mission of strengthening social connections through cultural diversity. Dialogue held at museums is modest and certainly not as verbose as a parliamentary debate. However, closing the accumulation of small dialogues will eventually deprive us of cultural diversity and make our society fragile. The museum as a channel for dialogue is an essential part of social infrastructure, not a luxury.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, how can museums secure a place for dialogue through a combination of the real and the virtual? How can people continue to participate in museums which express diversity and connect society together? Such questions require us to reexamine the position of museums as social infrastructure.

(1) Marjorie Schwarzer, "Lessons from History: Museums and Pnademics", March 10, 2020.

(2) UNESCO Report, Museums around the World, in the Face of COVID-19, UNESCO, May 2020.

(3) Caitlin Dover, "Inspiration at Home: A Guggenheim Educator on How Art Builds Community", May 8, 2020.
(4) UNESCO, pp.18-19.

Saki Yokoyama
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Museum Studies

Saki Yokoyama graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Kyoto University in 1993. In 2007, she completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, Nagoya University. She holds a PhD in education from Nagoya University. She served as a Curator of Education at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo before assuming her current position in 2017. Her current research theme concerns the analysis of how disasters are represented at museums.

Her main written works include National Portrait Gallery (Sangensha Publishers, 2013), Becoming a Curator (Perikansha Publishing, 2019), Portrayal of the Other, Disturbed Self-Art, Representation, and Identity (co-written; Arina Shobo, 2018), The Museum in the Blues: Reconsidering Displays and Collections (Suiseisha Publishing, 2020) and more.