Some thoughts on the future for art museums from a non-insider

There is a couple of things on my mind when I think about art museums. Some of them are specifically post-COVID, but globally speaking those considerations would be relevant to museums also in the absence of the global pandemic.

First, of course, a small disclaimer: who am I to talk about what art museums should do?

I am not an insider, I have never worked for an art museum or been on its board. Yet. Nevertheless, as a person whose work relates to the art field and most importantly as a person whose heart is in the art world, I take the liberty of voicing my humble opinion.

Long story short, here is what I’ve been thinking about: 

I cannot help but wonder what is the rationale of physical existence for art museums in the modern world? What is their mission? What do they exist for? Are they meant to be the mere guardians of our cultural heritage? Or to be a bridge, a promoter, an inspirer, and a dialogue fosterer?

The current pandemic amusingly managed to engage many people with art (perhaps, even more than museums did in years before that). Countless museums and art galleries opened their virtual doors to millions and millions of people, and there have been amazing curated online exhibitions recently. 

Just as an example:

take the canceled Van Eyck exhibition, which turned into an exciting virtual VIP tour guided by no other than a renowned researcher in the field of early-Netherlandish painting, co-curator Till-Holger Borchert. It was just great! I loved it!

(If you missed it, have a look here)

Had there been no COVID, would anyone be lucky to have such an experience? 

On the other hand, the exhibition which could have been THE art event of the year has been canceled and no visitor stood next to the real Van Eyck artwork…

What does that leave us with?.. Is it better to stick to virtual and forego the real altogether, as it provides better engagement? Personally, I don’t think so, but I do believe that there is an urgent, pressing need to reconsider how museums are operating (how all of us are “operating”, in fact). As one avenue of thought, perhaps art museums need to increase their use of modern technologies like the AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and others to enhance people’s experiences. On the other hand, do people really need that?

One of the great virtual initiatives in the time of COVID has been #izoizolyacia (#covidclassics, and especially the Russian version of the hashtag #изоизоляция) — the flashmob on Facebook and Instagram where participants try to emulate famous paintings (certainly have a look at the hashtags if you still haven’t). Thousands of people participated (and still do). In fact, tens of thousands of people got engaged with art through this initiative. Will those people remain engaged, interested, or inspired by artworks in the future? I don’t know; but even if 1% of them do, that’s a lot of people.

Talking about engagement with art museums, one has to stress blockbuster exhibitions aimed at attracting huge crowds. However, to think about it, this exhibition-going experience for many people proves to be rather shallow. It is somehow peculiarly less about seeing and more about… being seen seeing. 

Moreover, on the walls of museums and in their storages there are still countless masterpieces that do not profit from public interest anymore (nor have ever, for that matter). That makes me wonder how could art museums stimulate people to engage more with this art? Also, provided the social distancing, how could such an engagement still happen at all?

I am talking a lot about “engagement”, but the thing is — this engagement aspect really matters. Art is supposed to foster reflection, discussions, enhance the understanding of society and the world around us, stimulate creativity, dialogue, and continuous quest for improvement. Art is not made to be buried alive in the climate-controlled storage facilities; it is made to live and to be interacted with. Just having a museum and just putting some artworks on its walls does not stimulate engagement. I wonder what could?

Another thought elaborates on what I already mentioned — “do people really need that?” More precisely, it is about investigating the needs of museum visitors. In many museums e.g. in Belgium I was asked for the postal code, but wouldn’t it be more valuable to know what did I come for (from wherever I came from)? What are my expectations from this visit? What do I hope to learn, see, feel, experience? And at the end of my visit, wouldn’t it be valuable for a museum to know if I got what I was hoping for? 

Finally, to complete this particular thought: what about those who never go to museums? Does anyone care to find out what is detracting them? Why don’t they? Could there be another way how to reach them?

In this post, I am not going to provide any answers, I just intended to voice some of the questions I have on my mind related to this subject. Hopefully that could trigger a dialogue.

So, now it is your turn: what do you think? What would the future for art museums be like according to you? And, as an add-on, if you never (or seldom) go to museums, why not? What could museums do to get to your heart?

I am very interested to hear your thoughts! Please share

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