When Museums Reopen, Will Their Form and Function Have Changed?

A digital artwork by Dominico Barra. Dominico Barra

When asked to picture a museum, it’s likely that you will imagine a building full of various objects and artifacts displayed on white walls and in glass cases. The dominance of the physicality of such a space—the building—and the established methods of looking and behaving in these kinds of places are clear and remain at the forefront of what defines a museum, perhaps even more so than the “what” or “why” of their contents.

The role of museums as we understand them today—monumental, domineering and enduring—is the product of deliberate efforts made by 19th century philanthropists in an attempt to emphasize standards of ethics, culture and, with that, colonial power. Museums morphed from intimate personal collections (or cabinets) of artifacts presented to friends at dinner parties into large collections that could assert morals and entertain the masses.

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The outbreak of COVID-19 has catapulted us into something closely resembling a science-fiction novel, leaving us to define our new normal through the fog of tragedy, isolation and uncertainty. With this, the rituals we follow are forced into the limelight, demanding that we assess and scrutinize where meaning lies, especially as the physical symbols of our institutions lay empty for the foreseeable future, defenseless against the powers of microscopic invaders.

Museums, alongside places of worship, schools, banks and other formal institutions, are being forced to adapt in order to reduce losses, despite little preparation or agility. However, all is not lost. Fear drives people towards art as a form of solace, if only as a means to contemplate and reflect on the swift upending of our realities. With no clear end point and no guarantee that the post-COVID-19 world will return us to familiar life patterns and behaviors, museums now have to find ways to meet audiences where they are—at home.

Generally speaking, it’s been a challenge for museums to stay up to date with new technologies. The speed with which they evolve makes it difficult for museums to stay current, though some have certainly made significant progress. As the chaos of COVID-19 unfolds, the Guggenheim in Venice, the New Museum and David Zwirner gallery are just several examples of exhibitors that have already started experimenting with ways to open up to audiences virtually. Hashtags, live curators’ talks, digital archives, and VR tours have taken over our Instagram feeds and inboxes, but is that all there is or can we expect more?

Being online allows museums and galleries to democratize their collections, opening up to the possibility of reaching audiences worldwide. Art collections that were once restricted and accessible by a limited few can be shared globally, at least digitally, allowing for more people to appreciate and learn about art regardless of their location. It also vastly improves the carbon footprint of the art world, as well as saving valuable time and resources as audiences can participate through their smartphones, without needing to travel or even to leave their sofas. 

As well as being able to access conventional museum archives and talks online, there are also a range of entities that were born and raised there, including Art Basel Online Viewing Rooms, Acute Art, CADAF, dot.gallery, and Silicon Valet, to name a few. Although they’re all utilizing an array of emerging technologies and for different reasons, the overarching ideology offers a respite for artists, curators and audiences to connect in ways much like those opposed to the Salon back in 1863.

These spaces, albeit free from the demands of materiality, have a new set of hurdles to overcome. The internet is highly saturated and difficult to navigate at the best of times, and acquiring an audience online takes extra efforts and unique approaches. This has led to a somewhat underground following of certain online spaces, exacerbated by the technologies used and word-of-mouth reputation.

The challenges to overcome are considerable but, like everything else, people will be motivated to adapt if the outcome is worth it. As it stands, the art world needs to ensure that it’s doing everything possible to embrace these new solutions and to make them work to the advantage of everyone involved. Typical problems that hinder the physical world will be easier to maneuver or are simply non-existent online, setting museums up for an exciting journey ahead. It takes a lot of effort, which is why it’s critically important that we lean on each other and work as a collective, balancing experience and expertise across media.

Although we are used to art being viewed in a physical space, we can already see the urgent need to step back from the physicality of exhibition spaces to create a digital environment that offers a new way of experiencing art.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the transition into the digital realm, with museums working hard to make the most of what is currently available. Along with the Serpentine Gallery, the Wellcome Collection, and with our initiatives at MoCDA, using the internet as a tool to reach audiences in new ways has the potential to make deeper connections with audiences and to offer alternative methods of experiencing art. Making an effort to learn more about different online dynamics will benefit institutions both now and in the long term. 

Regardless of what tools and platforms we use, having a deep understanding of the way people interact with art, both online and offline, and how that differs, will make the transition more seamless and open up space for experimentation, creativity and, most importantly, collaboration. 

When Museums Reopen, Will Their Form and Function Have Changed?