Museums around the world prepare as the COVID-19 crisis comes to an end

Should museums across the world take on new roles and play a wider part as a whole that will bring about, of course, in the need for greater resources to fund and facilitate this expansion.

EILAT LIEBER, the director of the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: MICHAL FATTAL)
EILAT LIEBER, the director of the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MICHAL FATTAL)
No one has a monopoly on culture. And there is no panacea template for the presentation thereof. Even so, over the years we have become accustomed to a pretty uniform format of museum layout, and the way works of art and artifacts are dished up to us. On the flip side, technology has significantly come into play in that regard, with video art in particular, and advancements in the sound and lighting spheres offering curators greater room for exhibition maneuverability.
And, in case anyone had any doubts about the need to take contemporary vibes and public discourse on board, along comes a pandemic and shuffles the pack, possibly irrevocably.
Dr. András Szántó has been aware of the need for a fresh approach to entice the public off the street and enter through the portals of museums across the globe for some time now. The 57-year-old Hungarian-born resident of New York should know. He makes a living from a wide range of related areas, as a writer, researcher and consultant in the art, media, cultural policy, arts sponsorship and philanthropy fields.
He recently put down some of his accrued street-level wisdom and the professional insight of museum directors from around the globe, in a concise format when he released a book called The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues.
The nearly 30 professionals featured in the project oversee museums in a wide variety of geographic, cultural, ethnic and sociopolitical settings, including New York, Moscow, São Paulo, Hong Kong, London, Marrakesh, Geneva and Beijing. Tania Coen-Uzzielli, director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (TAMA), is also in the interview lineup. Mind you, things did not go exactly as planned when Szántó made it over to Tel Aviv in January last year. He may have got in before the pandemic but a rainstorm he described as “biblical” scuppered the rendezvous. Still, they did eventually get to chat. “Tania has strong convictions about the way forward for the museum, and she brings great energy to her work,” Szántó notes.
“We have to tell multiple narratives today,” says Coen-Uzzielli. “That is the story of this century.” The TAMA director says she has been aware of the need to move things forward for a while and that the wheels have been set in motion. “Yes, the coronavirus outbreak pushed us all to do something fresh, but it is already happening. The Tel Aviv Museum has changed and is responding to events happening outside. I think it is important to be flexible and to be attentive to the outside world.”
Szántó certainly goes along with that concept and says he is delighted with the way things are panning out for him and for The Future of the Museum. “It’s already been translated into four languages, and there is a lot of activity around the book – invitations, conferences, talks. Things are kind of overwhelming right now, but in a good way,” he adds. “It’s really struck a chord.”
WHILE, SADLY, museums along with other cultural institutions remained shut for large swaths of the past year, Szántó put his unexpected furlough to good use. “This book set a kind of world speed record for how quickly you can get a book done,” he laughs. “During the pandemic, we all had a lot of time. But really, the genesis of the book is, around Easter last year, I wrote an article in [art world website] Artnet which basically said that museums are incredibly important to people and that we should reopen them.”
Things began to snowball. “The article went viral and I was speaking to a lot of museum directors and that’s when the idea crystallized, around April last year. I’d long had this plan, with the publisher, to do this kind of book but this gave us a framework because now there was a sense of a new chapter starting [for museums].”
Szántó got cracking. Most of the interviews were done and dusted within a couple of months, and the book was printed shortly after that.
There was plenty of “previous” for Szántó to work on. Over the course of several years he had overseen programs for museums directors from across the globe – called the Global Museum Leaders Colloquium – at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That provided him with plenty of insight and, in time, a launching pad for the book. “They were really eye openers for me. One of [the] things I saw in these deliberations, particularly with museum directors coming from emerging regions or politically complex situations, that the functions of the museums were, sort of, this new museology – the role of the museum in society.”
That, Szántó concluded, goes far beyond the recognized purview of the artwork and artifact repository. “They talked about the role of the museum in finding common ground, in negotiating conflict, in reconciliation, obviously in education. These societal functions of the museum were really very much on the museum directors’ minds. There was a sense of a shift in that area.”
Eilat Lieber is certainly looking to shake things up a bit, and to refashion the public’s idea of the unique institution she heads. Earlier this week, Lieber, the director of the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem, took part in a Join the Conversation webinar along with her counterparts at the Museum of the City of New York and at the Museum of London, Whitney Donhauser and Sharon Ament respectively.
The Reimagining Museums trilateral encounter looked at challenges of renewal and change in their respective institutions, the impact of urban development on museums and the role of the museum in the 21st century. Each of the museums has been through or is currently experiencing physical refurbishment and renovations.
The Museum of the City of New York underwent renewal five years ago, and Donhauser examined that process against a backdrop of social change. Meanwhile, the Museum of London is currently undergoing rebuilding work, renovating the old buildings of nearby Smithfield Market which traces its history back to the 10th century. And the Jerusalem institution has just embarked on a $40 million renewal and conservation project and aims to launch a new exhibition and entry pavilion next spring.
THE MUSEUM directors also look at culture, community, representation and the state of culture in a post-COVID-19 society.
The enforced closure of the Tower of David Museum, during the lockdowns and other Ministry of Health-imposed restrictions, meant that Lieber and her team could not only embark on the reconstruction project earlier than planned, but the absence of visitor traffic and associated logistics prompted an accelerated plan progression shortening the work schedule from three years to 18 months.
Lieber has her work cut out for her on several fronts. “I am navigating between the excitement of building for the future and the concern about paying for today: providing salaries for our staff, planning for the future for our team that is on furlough and trying to create content with a next-to-nothing budget,” she declares. The recurring shutdown scenario and limited entrance to the museum, cut the Tower of David’s income to zero, with 85% of the personnel put on unpaid leave.
While keenly conscious of the need for a makeover, Lieber says she is doing her utmost to stay on an operational even keel but highlights a range of issues faced by few of her colleagues around the world. “Our biggest challenge has been turning a national heritage site – an ancient fortress built to keep people out – into an accessible museum. We are building a new entrance pavilion between the ancient citadel and the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a formidable challenge. No less of a challenge is the curatorial challenge of deciding what to talk about in the long and colorful history of Jerusalem.”
The webinar interlocutors, naturally, also considered the fallout of the pandemic, the economic crisis that is impacting funding for cultural institutions and museums, as well as looking at climate change and cultural representation, particularly with regards to Black Lives Matter and diversity. The latter related to content programming but also took in staffing and expert opinions.
With the planned new light rail route passing near the Old City, the Tower of David stands to benefit from easier consumer access. Meanwhile, Ament is a key figure in the development of the Culture Mile that has become a global hub of creativity, innovation and learning that delivers economic growth and social mobility in London.
Should museums across the world, indeed, take on these new roles and play a wider part in society as a whole that will bring about, of course, in the need for greater resources to fund and facilitate this expansion. If we are to come out of coronavirus era wiser and more enlightened about how to benefit the world – and ourselves – in a physically, ecologically, socially and emotionally sustainable manner, one can only hope that state authorities – here and elsewhere – take those messages on board. Helping museums enrich our cultural lives, and spread messages of mutual acceptance isn’t a bad way to get started.