Rethinking museums for the future

Rethinking museums for the future

1 Agosto 2020 Off Di Direzione Rivista Siti Unesco

By Sally Tallant, President and Executive Director, Queens Museum, New York (from: The UNESCO Courier • July-September 2020 )


Across the globe, museums have been closed due to the impact of COVID-19. This has meant that these institutions have had to learn quickly how to operate remotely and to remain relevant  and visible while their buildings remain out of bounds. The role of culture and museums in our society is already  going through rapid change. Digital content is now essential for maintaining audiences confined to their homes.
The challenges of adapting to reduced visitor numbers, social distancing  in the museum, and ensuring staff and public safety mean that the experience of culture has radically changed. These unpredictable times necessitate quick decision-making at all levels.

Globally, cultural leaders are working together to share information and knowledge at this time and there is a real sense of community, support and collaboration in spite of the challenges we are each facing. In New York, there have been regular meetings of small groups and much larger coalitions. Over 200 people from cultural organizations met daily to gather and share information and lobby together.  We are finding innovative ways to keep our institutions afloat and to inspire our communities locally and globally.

A need to change models

Until there is a complete recovery, museums with large endowments and collections to draw from will be in a better position than small ones, that rely on contributions from supporters, who themselves will likely experience deep losses. All museums will be analysing their income streams. Large museums that depend on tourism and admission fees, will need to change their models. Small museums will have the advantage; we are nimble, used to working with small budgets and more attuned to the needs of our neighbours and communities.

As we navigate the challenges of a dramatically altered world due to COVID-19, we are thinking about the future of the Museum. Queens, the city’s most diverse borough,
where the museum is located, was at the epicentre of the pandemic in New York. Its neighbourhoods have been among the most vulnerable in the five boroughs. They include many of our essential workers – they drive cabs, stock supermarkets, make and deliver food, and work in the gig economy. Often, their jobs do not offer health insurance, benefits or employment protection. Many are undocumented immigrants and do not have the luxury of staying home and not working.

There has been a systemic political failure to provide equitable resources and health care, and this has led to the development of a society that lacks empathy,  care and respect for people and for diversity. Working-class communities in our neighbourhoods are suffering disproportionately.

Now we are living with a palpable precarity. We are faced with many questions: how will we make our way back to the Museum? What will it mean for people to gather once again in public places? What measures will we need  to take to make our spaces safe – for our staff and for the public? Together with my colleagues in Queens, we are working with the community to understand what is relevant and what is needed. We will need to recover, reconnect, repair, heal; we will need to learn together how we can generate productive and joyful spaces, while responding to the care and practical needs of our communities.

Showcasing existing collections

The history of the Queens Museum, and its location, can provide a guide to understanding how we might create a relevant model of a Museum for the future, and develop strategies to support artists, educators and our communities. The collection of over 13,000 objects enables us to tell stories that will help us to inform our future, using the fragments of the past. We will invite artists, curators and the public  to agitate and activate its content to make exhibitions and displays.

Founded in 1972, the Museum is located in the New York City Building, which was built to house the New York City Pavilion at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. The Fair was planned during the Great Depression (1929-1939) and intended as an uplifting project for the public and for the economy. The theme, The World of Tomorrow, emphasized this optimism and hope for the future. From 1946 to 1950, the building housed the General Assembly of the newly- formed United Nations until the site of the UN’s current home in Manhattan became available.

Many important decisions were taken there, including the establishment of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). By way of honouring this history, we are developing a Children’s Museum, which is inspired  by the history of recreation and play in the surrounding park and in the building, which was also once used as an ice rink.

The strategies of the past – of employing artists to work together with communities and in organizations – can provide us with inspiration for how we might once again assert culture and the arts as an essential industry, and central to society and its recovery. We will need new financial models and new tax initiatives to aid recovery.

Writers, designers, architects, invited to contribute

For the 1939 World’s Fair, many projects were produced through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal work-relief programmes, which created employment, including artistic production in the wake of the Great Depression. Artists were paid to create work for government buildings, community centres and institutions through various programmes, which created employment for thousands of artists over the years. These initiatives and histories continue to inform generations of artists and organizers in the US.

Today, we face the prospect of mass unemployment and an economic recession, a growing refugee crisis, as well as living in the midst of a global health crisis. We will need to develop an understanding of how we can live and work with a constantly shifting world and how we can together face collective grief – grief for the loss of loved ones, loss of habitat due to the climate emergency, and grief for the loss of a way of living.

So, what have we learnt, what does it mean to reimagine a museum and what tools do we need to be able to create relevant and useful organizations? At the Queens Museum, we will embrace the uncertainty of this moment and trust that artists, writers, designers, poets and architects can help us to remake  the Museum. We are developing a model of a museum that puts artists, educators and organizers at its centre. We will work in coalition with cultural, educational and community partners locally and create the conditions to support the production of work, ideas and collaboration. We will employ artists from our communities and will provide studio space, support, resources, technical support and mentors to create intergenerational and international conversations. We will reimagine how the Museum can operate and focus on production on-site, and in our neighbourhoods.

Education is at the heart of our work and we will continue to develop digital content and will broadcast from the Museum as well as convene and create much-needed moments of connection and intimacy. We will be hyper-local  and international in our reach.

Connecting through art

Queens is multicultural in its traditions, and over 160 languages are spoken in the borough. This diversity will be reflected in the art that is produced and education and social practice  that takes place. At the same time, the dissemination of what is produced, and descriptions of what takes place in the borough, will be communicated digitally to a global audience – both in places that reflect the backgrounds of the Queens communities, and in dialogue with other culturally diverse neighbourhoods and cities around the world.

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next,” wrote the American author Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1969 science-fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness.  Are we living in the dystopian future we feared and that was described so eloquently by Le Guin? I hope that we can find our way back to our communities.
I hope that we can recover and reimagine our cultural spaces and once again create and connect through art and culture. I hope that this experience has shown us how we can overcome distance and find new ways to communicate, collaborate and build proximity and community.  I know that museums and culture have an important role to play in the healing and recovery that we will all need in the coming months and years, and look forward to  us finding our place together with our communities – in Queens and elsewhere.


BOX    Creative industries: Increasing resilience

The cultural and creative sectors have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Museums were particularly affected, with nearly ninety per cent – or more than 85,000 institutions – forced to close their doors (UNESCO, May 2020) for varying lengths of time during the COVID-19 crisis.

Deprived of their public, these institutions are facing sharp declines in revenue. The professions linked to museums, their operation and the extent of their influence, could be seriously impacted as a result. A survey conducted by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in mid-May on International Museum Day estimates that nearly thirteen per cent of the world’s museums may never be in a position to reopen.

The crisis has also revealed major cultural and digital disparities. The digital divide, already significant between countries and regions, has been exacerbated by the crisis. In Africa and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – which account for only 1.5 per cent of the total number of museums worldwide – only five per cent of museums were able to offer alternative online content to audiences during the lockdown period, according to UNESCO.

In response to this cultural and social crisis, UNESCO launched the ResiliArt movement in April 2020, to highlight the considerable impact of lockdown measures on the culture sector. Its aim is to mobilize professionals from the cultural industry and other stakeholders to increase the resilience and sustainability of creative industries and cultural institutions.

As part of this movement, UNESCO Member States have placed among their priorities, the adoption of measures and policies to support and promote the diversity of cultural expressions – such as capacity-building, social protection for museum staff, digitization and inventorying of collections, and the development of online content.

This international mobilization has made it possible to initiate dialogues to inform countries on the development of policies, and financial mechanisms to help creative individuals and communities overcome the crisis. The discussions have highlighted the means available to the public and private sectors to preserve cultural ecosystems and explore paths to recovery. By the end of May, over fifty ResiliArt debates had already been organized in more than thirty countries – with the participation of artists and cultural professionals from all the world’s regions.