Ensuring Museums Remain Relevant

After reading the many posts on museum layoffs and closures in recent months, I wondered how we might continue to care for and interpret collections, and continue our community relationships. The first thing the Council for Museum Anthropology (CMA) did was start a discussion group on “The Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Museums and Heritage Sites.”   

Can we develop new digital versions of visits with material items? How might those work?

The discussion group, which now has more than 560 members, shared information on museum collecting during the pandemic and helped CMA highlight the catastrophic effects of closures on museum finances and collections care as well as issues surrounding reopening protocols. . We also promoted the relevance of museums to society during the pandemic, ranging from redeployment of personal protective equipment (PPE) and use of museum 3D printers to create the PPE for health care workers (thank you, colleagues!), to the great digital surge of online tours, self-curated exhibitions, activities, and programming offered by museums. We’ve also seen some slightly wacky posts, including one on a proposed museum in space (fun thought, but floats above such realities as the parlous nature of even earthbound museum budgets) and an ethically problematic “weirdest object” challenge.

A highlight of the forum is the international nature of information posted, and seeing how challenges related to the pandemic play out differently in different contexts. Some issues have cross-cultural implications. Posts on a decision by the Association of Art Museum Directors  to relax rules around selling collections to shore up budgets have prompted assertions of Indigenous sovereignty, ownership, and deep concern over the fate of heritage items.

COVID-19 will be with us for a long time. We need new practices for maintaining relationships and making collections accessible. We have argued that our work is crucial to supporting identity, healing, and health in Indigenous and other communities. Is backing away the only thing we can do now? Locked out of collections and exhibitions, and in some cases deprived of institutional email through furlough processes, we’ve been remarkably quiet for a group whose practice is based on relationships, resilience, and determination.  

How can we take our work online in ways that support community engagement? Some digital outreach done by museums has endeavored to bridge the gap between in-person and online access; the best such projects get audiences to consider shape, weight, texture, and history. I’m not aware of any such work by, with, or for Indigenous or other community of origin audiences, nor of any detailed online collections visits created within the contexts of collaborative relationships.

We are starting to see commissioned museum tours for general public audiences, some by Indigenous colleagues. We are also seeing thoughtful attempts to continue critical dialogues, including webinars, critical online museum tours, and online exhibitions covering historical and contemporary relations of power that discuss colonialism, race and other key issues.

Such developments are welcome, but they don’t replace visits by community members to the museum to handle and learn from heritage items, or the relationship-building needed to support those visits and their positive outcomes in both community and museum. There has been some experimentation with how we hold conversations with community representatives. I’m intrigued by a blog posted by an environmental assessment company that works collaboratively with Indigenous communities about doing semi-structured interviews online. Can we develop new digital versions of visits with material items? How might those work?

Helen Rees Leahy’s thoughtful piece for Cultural Practice, “Cultural Access and the ‘New Normal’,” noted that lockdowns have “both revealed and exacerbated existing inequalities of wealth, space, time, and health” in relation to museum access. Much of what museum anthropology has done in the past has been about addressing such inequalities. Our task now is to take that legacy into a future in which COVID-19 remains part of life for museums and for their audiences.

Join the conversation in CMA’s Facebook group!

Laura Peers is a settler curator/museum anthropologist living on Michi-Saagig territory near Peterborough, Canada, and works as an international freelance consultant.

Cite as: Peers, Laura. 2020. “Ensuring Museums Remain Relevant.” Anthropology News website, September 10, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1484

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