The R index for museums: the compass for these difficult times

We have all heard about the R-index in relation to coronavirus. But can there be an R-index for museums as well? Sandro Debono tries to propose one.

Thoughts and reflections presented at the international online conference “Museums and Covid-19 - Challenges, Re-evaluation and Future Perspectives,” organized as part of the Be Museumer project.

We have been hearing about it for days, weeks, and months. It is the unit of measurement of the impact the virus is having and the reason for the concerns that keep resurfacing. It is the R-index! If you have never heard of it, despite all that has been said and done about it, the R-index is a mathematical equation that is used to determine the resilience and replication capacity of the Covid-19 virus over a given period of time. A high R-index means higher impact and more deaths. A low R-index means less impact and a healthier environment. Governments around the world are trying to bring it down-some are succeeding, while others are still struggling.

Museum reopenings depend very closely on the Covid-19 R-index. The higher it is, the less likely the museum is to return to its audience. The lower it is, the greater the chances of museums reopening. But so is it all that simple? Actually, it is a bit more complex than that.

As museum revenues continue to dry up, since they are linked to the return of the public to the museum, it may still be the case that the “new” normal is experienced with the mindset of the “old” normal. Indeed, there is evidence to support this. And from the plethora of data emerging, I would pick out a couple of pieces of the puzzle.

Gabriel Buttigieg, Totem, dettaglio
Gabriel Buttigieg, Totem, detail

Seventy-five percent of museums are not seeking alternative sources for their revenue. This figure was published by NEMO - Network of European Museums Organizations, last May, as part of a larger survey of the impact Covid-19 has had on the European museum sector. The high percentage of museums that are not exploring alternative revenue models contrasts with the strong resistance to closing them permanently or reconsidering museum existence, and significant losses on ticket or bookshop product sales.

This finding suggests that museums may have settled into a wait-and-see mode, hoping that everything will return to the “old” normal. Instead of taking the opportunity to rethink and reinvent itself, the museum sector may be living in the hope that things will go back to the way they were before.

Eighty-five percent of U.K. museum directors have, as their top priority, the "return of the public to the museum." This is one of the conclusions emerging from a recent report by Arts Fund UK. At first glance, this might be the right thing to do, but when seen in context, this concern scores higher than staff and employee welfare (76 percent), partnership cancellation (75 percent), and the institution’s ability to survive (56 percent).

This finding suggests that the idea of the museum continues to be centered on physical visitation in the public space, with the potential of digital still not fully entrenched on the idea of a new museum “netizen” that the pandemic has highlighted very consistently.

In short, although museums continue to be fully aware of the losses on their revenue sources, they also seem to be stuck and frozen in time, perhaps because they are waiting for the storm to pass in the hope that everything will return to normal, the “old” normal. This sense of impasse and blockage may come from the prejudice that museums can only exist in physical space, while everything else is something collateral. But are museums looking for a way out of the currentimpasse, caught as they are between the belief that there is no change to consider, and the possibilities to reinvent themselves?

Cavo tripolare

An R-index for museums?

Yes, there is an R-index for museums that I would like to propose. It has the same function and goal as the one we followed in the hope of keeping everything in check during the Covid-19 pandemic. It works much the same way. The higher the R-index of a museum, the more resilient, impactful, and relevant it is. A low R-index, on the other hand, could result in less resilience, less relevance, and less impact. I like to think of the R-index as a three-core electrical cable, where the brown and blue cores turn the device on and complete the circuit, while the green core protects it from power surges and thus provides a level of defense against electrical shocks. The tripolar cable-index R of museums lights up the post-Covid museum. If you’re into definitions, this one might work: "The R-index of museums is a tripolar-cable-like concept that connects resilience, relevance and revenues (income). This three-core R-index can serve as a compass for museums that want to ride out the storm and may only be at its beginning."

Gabriel Buttigieg, Totem, dettaglio
Gabriel Buttigieg, Totem, detail

Resilience is the key skill museums need at this juncture. It can be achieved in multiple ways, or perhaps a combination of ways. One might be to observe best practices from around the world as guidelines and case studies. There is indeed much to learn from the past experiences of other museums that have faced an economic crisis or struggled in areas of conflict, but there is no one-size-fits-all way to approach the problem.

Resilience could also be developed through lateral thinking. We take certain perceptions, certain concepts and specific barriers for granted without questioning the reasons why we do so. Indeed, the human brain desires to know new things, but then locks the process into an automatic response or behavior. And this is where lateral thinking can make a difference.

Rather than thinking in the same direction, museums need to distance themselves from logical thinking. By abandoning classic problem solving patterns, that is, those of step-by-step solutions that begin with the data one has, museums could find alternative ways to look at the same challenge or problem and to consider it from an expanded perspective, to find new approaches. Changing the point of view and looking at the museum from outside the perimeter of the building, the challenge might look very different. Here is a good overview of lateral thinking methodologies by Edward De Bono.

Relevance is the ambition that could help the museum rethink, shape and define its guiding values. This is where the dialectic between the museum and its convenience can shape the values of the post-Covid museum. And it is here that depth of listening and empathy can be decisive.

The way museums and society at large communicate is, more often than not, the result of inveterate cultural patterns. Museums tend to take for granted the authority of their own voice and, I might add, their own tone, without recognizing, perhaps far more often than some of them do, that there are voices to be heard and circumstances with which to empathize.

Depth of listening is an art that museums need to learn or develop more. It is not about predetermined opinions often rooted on prejudice or prestige. Nor is it about arguing or waiting for the first sign that reveals a different thought, so that we can arrive to set the record straight. For museums, listening well means understanding the mood and feelings of the communities to which they are connected and with whom they work, or with whom they could potentially work. It means ensuring open and interested attention in a genuine way. It means listening from a position that is deep, receptive and caring at the same time, to reach deeper and often more subtle levels of meaning and intentions that are established with the other person. This TED-X talk provides a good overview of the differences between hearing and listening.

Revenues (income) come last but are equally important. Without resilience to weather the storm and without relevance as the reason for existing and operating vis-à-vis a certain community, revenues will continue to remain low. On the other hand, revenue is a necessary tool through which museums can become more relevant, but resilience is the key that allows museums to survive at this time.

When viewed through the lens of resilience, revenue can also be interpreted as an exchange or something similar. When viewed through the lens of relevance, they can be seen as an asset or knowledge. In fact, revenues are what museums see as their value overall, since they can be understood as assets or knowledge that enrich the institution, support its growth, and make it more relevant and resilient.

Gabriel Buttigieg, Totem, dettaglio
Gabriel Buttigieg, Totem, detail

The artist in this article is the young Maltese talent Gabriel Buttigieg. We thank Gabriel for giving us a peek at the work he will be showing at Biffi Arte Gallery in Piacenza in the coming months.

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