University Museums in the post-pandemic era

Posted on May 05, 2023

Are we living in a post-pandemic era? Well, almost, and as university museums, we must rethink how we respond to the idea of a post-pandemic era, given that we have only partially emerged from our COVID-19 cocoons as if caught in some sort of time lapse. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 500 recorded sublineages or strains of the variant are still circulating in the world. The WHO suggests that since the emergence of Omicron, the virus has continued to evolve, and the end is not in sight. An estimated 10 000 COVID-19-related cases are still recorded every day. The pandemic is still very much alive, and until the WHO stops using the term “pandemic”, we will continue to live in uncertainty. University museums need to adapt, change and evolve without hesitation if they wish to continue beyond the 21st century. 

Human Rights Watch recently recorded that more than 750 million instances of COVID-19 have been reported since the outbreak in 2019, with more than 68 million fatalities worldwide. The exceptional crisis revealed widespread failings: government oversight, social injustice, increased racial violence, human rights violations, mass fatalities, economic downturns and political posturing. 

The pandemic has fundamentally altered how society functions. In 2017, the South African Cultural Observatory reported that the museum sector accounted for almost 7% of employment in the country – this figure has since halved, if not been reduced to 20%. As a result of the pandemic, the museum sector experienced irreparable loss; museum personnel lost their jobs; heritage sites were plundered as security measures relaxed; cultural material was looted and stolen; and many museums tinkered on the edge, while some were permanently shut. 

The WHO states that the global pandemic is still present, even after the national state of disaster was revoked in South Africa as of 5 April 2022. There are reiterative post-pandemic thoughts as university museums and other museums continue to function as before, some perhaps in a state of amnesia. It may be in the very nature of museums to maintain a positive outlook during challenging times. 

Despite prolonged closures, reduced visitor numbers and loss of income, the most profound impact of the pandemic was on funding, with many museums facing significant budget shortfalls and some cutting their losses altogether. The pandemic has taught the museum industry to be resilient, even more so in higher education, as many universities came to a standstill and education moved online over culture and art. Only last year did university museums resume some form of “normality”.

While university museums have had to significantly alter, if not radically change their professional services and practices in the post-pandemic era, many significant changes were implemented. One universally perceptible shift is that university museums are now considerably more conscious of the human dimension, focusing on people rather than objects. They are more aware of delivering an impact on society, thanks to their open-access exhibitions and public engagement on various levels.

University museums are excellent examples because they prioritise serving their immediate campus communities, as seen by the enormous volume of visitors they receive each day, including students, staff and the public. Students in particular have developed stronger respect for campus museums, not simply because it’s required for academic modules or is part of a teaching and lecturing schedule, but because they want to – students want to experience museums as spaces for social interaction, personal growth, enjoyment, relaxation and reflection.

Most university museums have ongoing permanent exhibitions that attempt to blur the line between academia and society. Beyond their obvious educational function, which is not limited to higher education, university museums provide significant learning environments for school learners. School visits to university museums have resumed and outreach continues.

University museums will forever be on the cutting edge of museum teaching and education, not only in tertiary and secondary education, but also for lifelong learners and dedicated museum patrons who continue to support university museums. University museums still instruct and educate those visiting these museums about their benefits and value. 

In the post-pandemic era, it is more crucial than ever to educate people about the value of collections and archives and how they serve as memory banks for a society’s art, culture, history and heritage. University museums inform the general public about the value of museums and the necessity of preserving, safeguarding and protecting their collections. Many museums have closed in the wake of the pandemic, making them vulnerable to economic downturns. As a result, those that have remained open must work harder to remain viable and resilient. 

Since the pandemic, support for the wider arts, heritage and museums industry has decreased exponentially, which has caused a downward financial spiral. In the past five years, many museums had to permanently close their doors because there was no way to recover financially. However, for every museum that shut its doors in recent years, 10 more have opened. This resilience is because society will always have museums, and universities will always have collections to generate new knowledge to bring research closer to society.

University museums have been nudged to adapt to a new way of life: as a result of lockdowns and social distancing measures, many museums were closed to the public, forcing them to find new ways to engage with audiences and continue their educational mission. As we emerge from the pandemic, it is important to reflect on some changes in university museums in a post-pandemic world.

Five takeaways of change in a university museum context have emerged in the post-pandemic era.

Technology has been embraced: The pandemic has shown that digital galleries, online exhibitions and digital collections are crucial for engaging audiences and reaching out to people who may not have the opportunity to physically come to a museum. University museums continue to leverage technology to offer remote access to their collections and archives, and use more social media to enhance the audience experience. Museums have shown that they can remain relevant in the digital age; the massive migration of collections online allows for access to collections from anywhere. Utilising technology, university museums have been able to use augmented reality and virtual tours in more up-to-date exhibits to increase visitor numbers and engage the global community on a large scale.

Health and safety has been prioritised: The pandemic has highlighted the importance of safety and hygiene in public spaces such as museum galleries. University museums have kept up many pandemic practices such as touchless interfaces, improved ventilation systems and enhanced museum cleaning protocols to ensure the safety of staff and visitors. They continue to place more emphasis on wellness, and are increasingly more health and safety conscious. Sanitiser stations are still commonplace and social distancing is now seen as almost a given characteristic when visiting a gallery. It has also become customary to use a mask when visiting a museum. The safety of all visitors remain a higher priority as health and safety protocols are entrenched in day-to-day routines.

Inclusivity and resilience have been fostered: The pandemic has aggravated existing inequalities, and university museums can play a role in promoting inclusivity and diversity. They had to actively seek out diverse perspectives and collaborate more, as well as move to a wider global footprint to reflect the needs and interests of a faster-paced globalised world. The pandemic demonstrated the importance of resilience and flexibility in the face of unanticipated challenges. University museums began building resilience by diversifying income streams, seeking new sources of funding to stay sustainable, developing back-up plans, and investing more in their staff and professional development to stay agile and approachable to a changing world. 

More environmental awareness: The requirement for university museums to prioritise environmental sustainability in their daily operations and services has given museums cause to place greater emphasis on sustainability. Energy-efficient lighting and the exploration of new technologies like solar power can minimise carbon emissions and improve the environmental impact of museums.

More emphasis on relevance: The pandemic has forced university museums to reassess their value and relevance in a changing world, one in which higher education is fundamentally changing. University museums will continue to remain relevant by connecting their collections to communities and current topics of interest, engaging in more transdisciplinary partnerships and fostering wider conservations with collaborators around important themes facing all museums on a global scale.

Yes, another pandemic may be expected in the future. In fact, a global pandemic treaty is being considered by the WHO. Perhaps university museums need to take similar things into account and approve a statement about their future in a post-pandemic world. 

In his discursive 2020 essay ‘What museums post-pandemic’, Amareswar Galla – UNESCO Chair on Inclusive Museums and Sustainable Heritage Development and an alumnus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University – argues that despite the worldwide pandemic having exposed the vulnerability of the museum sector globally, collections will continue to be hegemonic and fundamental to museums. The museum as an institution and its context need to be fundamentally rethought. Museums will be more relevant in places that adhere to “new normalities and modalities of sustainability.”

The ever-evolving and resilient university museum landscape will include adapting to the new normal, radically changing their future strategies, creating a more “fit-for-purpose” viewpoint and multipurpose, transdisciplinary approaches, bridging the digital divide and deeper engagement with the community. While artificial intelligence is on the museum horizon, it won't fade away and is going to be revolutionary. It will be more crucial for university museums to retain their human value in a sustainable and post-pandemic world; not ignore the human element and retain humanity at all costs.

University museums are often beacons of healing, hope and happiness for communities. They offer galleries, which are safe spaces and welcoming places for reflection and engagement. Art, culture, history and heritage help to establish connections between people, and the past with the present. Museums support the mental health and well-being of visitors as non-judgmental safe havens where people can express their opinions freely and enjoy what is on offer.

University museums play a unique role in society and have much more to offer academia. They serve as hubs of education, research and public engagement, and have a broader mission to promote transdisciplinary curation and generate new knowledge across a wide range of disciplines. Museums will embrace technology, prioritise safety, foster inclusivity, emphasise relevance and build resilience since university museums continue to impact society, both directly and indirectly, just in a much more transformative way than in the past. To be sustainable, university museums must embrace the many changes of a post-pandemic world and be forward-thinking in shaping a more resilient environment.

- Author Dr. Sian Tiley-Nel

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