The last day that the British Museum was open, 17 March, its galleries weren’t empty. The museum wasn’t full either, but there was a steady stream of people filtering in and out all morning. Families were sitting in the cafes and perusing the gift shops. Tourists clustered in small groups around the Rosetta Stone.
Rubens Canivezo, 27, was marooned in London after a flight home to São Paulo through Italy had been canceled. He and a friend had come to the museum that morning because almost everywhere else had closed its doors. “We were just looking for somewhere that was open,” he said. This answer was unexpectedly poignant: museums, especially those without entry fees, provide an open space, a small sanctuary in a big busy city, a place to go. Yet, just hours after Canivezo visited, the British Museum belatedly joined museums around the world in responding to a global pandemic by shutting its doors. It could be closed for months.
For museums and similar institutions, this shutdown could have potentially dire consequences; in the United States, where museums typically receive less funding from the government, the president of the American Alliance of Museums predicted that one third of museums that have closed may never reopen. Even large institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will be operating at deficits and may furlough or lay off staff. Government economic relief measures and donations are just starting to trickle in, and museum futures are precarious.
The closures come with another immediate challenge for museums: what their role can be when their doors are closed. Concerts and plays are being live-streamed, and even the opera has moved online. But the challenge for museums is distinct; the venue and physical space are uniquely important to the experience, and it’s much harder to look at objects online than it is to listen to music or watch theatre. Still, there aren’t many alternatives, so museums are starting to open their metaphorical doors on the web.
#MuseumFromHome has been trending on Twitter, alongside images of objects from collections. Many museums are uploading images of exhibitions online, in curated displays for virtual inspection. Some are focusing on educational materials, for parents and kids stuck at home. Google Arts & Culture has digitised tours of hundreds of museums that provide uncanny (if glitchy) views of museum spaces. The National Gallery in London is inviting viewers to take a virtual reality tour of one of its wings, should you happen to have a VR headset on hand. The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow is taking to TikTok and Telegram, and built a self-isolation platform online. Arebyte Gallery in London is live-streaming its vacant space on YouTube. The New Museum in New York, with its affiliate Rhizome, commissioned new works of net art, now available on the web and WeChat in an exhibition meant to be seen online.
A lot of this is happening on the fly, building on existing digital strategies in a time of crisis. “Of course, if we knew this was coming, we could have created a lot of stuff,” says Michael Tame, website and collections online programme manager at the British Museum. “But everyone is scattered now across different places, and the museum itself in complete lockdown, so we can’t take a camera around the galleries. So we’re thinking about what we can do with the existing content, and what people can do from home.” The museum plans to launch a long-planned overhaul of its digital collections by the end of April, with a revved-up search function and better design. Their collections are currently searchable – and week after week, Tame said, the number one search is for “Egypt,” as people are seeking to see the Rosetta Stone and other ancient artefacts from afar.
Museums have been working to digitise their collections and engage with users on social media for years; many have audiences that far surpass their visitor numbers. Ian Wardropper, the director of the Frick Collection in New York, explains that the museum broadcasts events live online, and, “It’s not rare for someone from Sweden to be watching along with someone from Australia and Brazil.”
Still, many museums had a digital strategy focussed on getting visitors to their doors, one that won’t work during a time of shutdown. “This is going to be a really sink or swim moment for museums,” says Julia Kennedy, who has worked in social media, marketing, and digital consulting for museums in the United States. “Every museum thinks they’re really special, and that people will take their time away from Twitter and Facebook and every other site and go browse their collection. Almost no one is going to do that when there’s Netflix.” She stressed the importance of personality – perhaps in the style of the Museum of English Rural Life, which became an international social media superstar and boosted visitor numbers by being really weird online.
For museum-goers, the closures have clear downsides; nothing really makes up for the absence of a museum’s physical space. But this strange time also has its serendipities: the sudden compulsion to dip into the digital collections of a closed museum in Milan on Google Arts & Culture. Or to watch TikToks posted by a Russian Museum you may never visit. Or, perhaps, to search the collections for a long-loved painting you haven’t seen in person for years.
The British Museum has seen a surge of visitors to its website since it closed. One thing Tame has noticed: as countries go into stricter lockdown, they’ve been coming to the site. Normally, it’s dominated by visitors from the US and UK; over the past few weeks, visitors have been coming in droves from Italy and Spain. Right now, there are more visitors from Italy than any other country in the world.
“We know that people turn to cultural things in times of stress,” Tame says. “We’ve been through a lot of troubles and we’ll get through this one. We have things in our collection going back centuries and that shows we’re a very resilient and long-lasting species.”
Photographs Getty Images