Fragile beauty. What trends are emerging for post-Covid museums.

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned the museum world upside down: now, institutions will have to change their models and patterns, or risk succumbing. Here are three trends that are emerging for post-Covid museums.

“The apocalypse we’ve been waiting for.” This statement by American activist Aja Taylor was impressive enough to make me think. How can this be so? That is, how can an apocalypse that disrupts our way of life be welcomed and even beneficial? I think the answer must be found in the origin of the word “apocalypse,” which comes from a verb that means “to unveil” in ancient Greek.

As the entire museum ecosystem has come to a standstill from which it currently and for many seems difficult to restart, I cannot help but think about how true Aja Taylor’s words are. This apocalypse has revealed the vulnerability of the traditional museum model, and it has revealed how much of this ecosystem is destined to be lost, or at least to be completely restructured. It is troubling to think that a third of the American museums that have closed may never reopen. In Europe, the Network of European Museums Organizations has taken stock of the impact on revenue, staff, online attendance and work processes that museums are experiencing. The indicators speak of an impact that will be huge, but difficult to predict. In the case of Dutch museums, we recently have the observation that in all likelihood one in four will not open.

A lot of discussion has arisen on social platforms about how to move forward. Museum directors, staff, consultants, and experts have shared their knowledge almost incessantly. I have been (and still am) pleasantly surprised by the discussions that continue incessantly on social and the responses that the discussions continue to generate. The need to adapt strategically and anticipate the skills we will need is one of the points that emerged from the discussions. There is a growing desire to focus on a new leadership class that will rise like the phoenix from the ashes. Nina Simon’s latest blog is a ray of sunshine certainly worth following.

Aysa Kozina

Managing fragility

Becoming aware of, and recognizing and harnessing, the fragility of our museums at this time is the first step. As this moment flows, institutions reinvent themselves in new and creative ways. Harnessing fragility could also involve a decisive overhaul of programming and marketing strategies and, in general, of everything related to museum audiences’ pre-Covid experiences.

Peak Experience Lab ’s Andrea Jones shared some interesting insights into the path ahead. In an insightful article published March 25, Peak Experience Lab talks about how this moment of transition is a good adaptation of the Kubler-Ross model, widely used for change management, and the liminality theory studies of Arthur van Gennep and Victor Turner. As Andrea Jones writes, “one way to begin the process is to unearth and eliminate traces of your museum’s ’zombie identity.’ That is, there are public engagement initiatives that are completely irrelevant right now.”

Most museums are now in a state of liminality, as several institutions have to abandon old habits and patterns, which are, however, considered fundamentally intrinsic to the raison d’etre of the museum itself. The neutral zone in which museums find themselves is certainly uncertain, but it also holds potential for creative exploration. It is at this moment, at this point in history, that the very existence of the museum comes to a crossroads. As Andrea Jones herself succinctly explains in her article, “If museums follow the ’hunker down and wait’ approach, then they are unlikely to emerge with the new and healthy identity they need in the post-pandemic world.”

I could identify three emerging trends (and as many talking points) that could help museums reinvent themselves at this crucial time. Certainly there are many more to consider, and some of these are well known. But perhaps the way we look at them now, through the lens of post-pandemic landscapes, can help us develop new ideas and lead the way for change.

Aysa Kozina

1. Develop audiences according to their emotional needs

There are good reasons to follow this new approach. The latter, in fact, could be one of the outcomes of this pandemic and could help museums become much more relevant than before. I would like to explain this approach by quoting Andrea Jones’ words again, “We are used to targeting audiences based on things like demographics, geographic data, interests, or we just think about their needs for learning and enjoyment. But being relevant to audiences in the age of quarantine also means meeting their emotional needs.”

Museums need to address, right now, bored people, desperate parents, confused teachers, institutions of higher learning that are teaching online, enthusiastic disciples and the like. The lists we continue to compile and the audience segments we continue to identify may develop the ways in which we look at our audiences in the years to come.

2. New forms of “museum time”

The new museum netizen can take the luxury of accessing museum content at any time of day and from any corner of the globe. It used to be an option he always had at his fingertips, but did not have the time to do so. And since a new museum netizen is emerging, the risk of forgetting that this netizen transcends time and space is real. There is an opportunity to be more relevant than ever: developing content tailored to your communities may force you to consider much more carefully where they are, at what times they can be reached, and how to address them.

A fresh approach to what I call “museum time” can help institutions become more relevant, since communities may be more in reach through the smart use of technology.

3. The future of museums lies within our homes

Yes, I know I am about to make a quote out of context, but it got me thinking. Orhan Pamuk’s final words in his Modest Manifesto for Museums say that the future of museums is inside our homes. Pamuk’s manifesto is in favor of “smaller, more individualistic and cheaper” museums capable of telling “tales” instead of “stories.” Given that there is the potential for a new “museum time” to emerge, and given the concerted effort to rethink the engagement of museum audiences in response to their emotional needs, are we then close to a new future of museums inside our own homes? It may even be that the museum really does become a home, habitable and welcoming as never before.

Aysa Kozina

Excerpted from the original version published in The Humanist Museum.

The images in this article show models wearing beautiful but fragile paper wigs created by Russian artist Aysa Kozina. We thank Aysa for allowing us to show these wonderful works here as well.