The museum landscape is changing, but how does that affect local communities and jobs?
This past year has been difficult for museums. Between lockdowns and layoffs, the way that the public consumes art and history has been forced to work around travel restrictions and safety regulations. Museums have tried their best to keep up with the times without public footfall for an indefinite amount of time. If you’re like me, you will have seen many exhibitions and museum collections being made available online. The digitisation of events and databases, some made public and accessible to audiences for free, some not, forced the cultural landscape to change drastically.
It is very easy to see this wave of digitisation as a natural industry progression, only sped up by the sudden and unavoidable pandemic restrictions. However, although modernisation is inescapable, it is normally brought about through waves, gradually becoming the norm over decades. This was not the case here. Slow progression is integral to allow smaller institutions and local cultural communities to keep up with the times on a limited budget and skillset. Although digitisation is not new, how does it affect those without the means to make drastic and sudden evolutions to their business?
Recently, the Musée du Louvre, Paris, made the decision to make the details and viewing of 482,000 works, around three quarters of their archive, free online for anyone to view, a drastic move that would have taken a large, dedicated team and budget to carry out. This online experience includes virtual tours, podcasts and VR experiences that anyone with an internet connection can take part in. One cannot help but think that, although this is a great and valuable step towards accessibility and education for all, the Louvre has a vast and dedicated team with a large budget so a move like this is not unprecedented for such a large pinnacle of French culture. As touched on in Episode 5 of the For Art’s Sake Podcast by Louise McAward-White, digitising a whole collection like this requires technology experts, photographers, historians, copywriters, UX specialists, to name a few. Smaller cultural and creative institutions such as local theatres, libraries, and museums do not have the resources or team to be able to fulfil such a project.
There is also the added risk of a healthy return on investment which makes up for the time and money spent on organisation, data analytics, research and promotion, a risk that small businesses are less likely to be able to take than those with larger budgets. Digitisation of media, a new skill for many teams and companies reliant on face-to-face business, creates a need for a completely new industry landscape. How can the smaller museums keep up? The local historical museums that tell stories on a smaller, but just as valuable, scale, the history of towns, landscapes, even tiny little cottages are all held here. Are we at risk of losing that? Although many of these smaller centres are backed by local councils, they rely on public support which has been difficult in the past year.
Some may think that the unstable future of local community museums isn’t such a bad thing, that this was perhaps bound to happen because, as the world modernises, something always gets left behind. There are many types of museums from national to independent, university to local authority; all of which are wholly important to the history and culture in the UK. If the country were to only consist of national museums, the history of the small and unimportant would fade into time. These narratives are still important, no matter how tiny, and help to build the rich tapestry that is a country’s history. Growing up I’m sure many of us remember visiting our local museums and exploring the breadth of human history with our own eyes. This was always a chance for us to get out of the classroom and use a different set of skills through craft, quiz, or puzzle: learning through play. This way of teaching is widely recognised throughout the country as extremely important for development (Unicef, 2018). I have many memories of visiting smaller museums and learning of hieroglyphics and ancient mummification rituals, all of which I absolutely loved. Without the assets of the local community museums, this type of experiential learning could slowly fade away, replaced with educational iPads and virtual tours.
As contemporary experiential art installations slowly start to become more and more normal, this also creates a different and new problem for the collection and digitisation of art. Performance, dance, theatre, and experiential art forms could be favoured over the more traditional mediums like oil and pencil due to a better translation from physical to digital. For example, the use of light and dance in Hardeep Sahota’s virtual exhibition Bhangra Lexicon at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, presents a mixture of photography and performance, perfectly fitting the limits of the screen. By seeing a 2D oil painting on a screen, the viewer is deprived of its full experience. Can you really see a piece of work through a screen when it was made to be only seen in person? The viewer has no concept of how large the canvas is, how thick or shiny the paint or the texture of its surface. When artworks were created before technology, screens cannot accurately portray the piece in full. In future, this may translate to less and less artists choosing to use traditional painting methods, changing the course of art history to favour modern techniques. This problem is not isolated to only 2D mediums though, artworks that require the viewer to play some part in, like the work of Chiharu Shiota at the Gothenburg Museum of Art in 2018. Works such as these rely on the viewer to fill a role within the piece. In this case, it is to marvel at the sheer intricacy and size overhead as the woven string fills the room. Although I’m sure there are ways that this could be digitized, it would not have the same effect and would leave the piece without its main purpose. Unfortunately, through digitisation alone, this problem can show up in many forms and, in my opinion, cannot be completely solved.
The future of local museums is rocky. Industry modernisation always has a cost, the question is whether this cost is detrimental to the culture of museums. Although the lack of accessibility within the industry has been a problem for a long time, this shift to the digital could leave valued local institutions and groups to diminish as audience preference changes. Local cultural businesses and creative institutions could be met with larger costs and a fast-growing need for media skills that may not have ever been a problem before. Various lockdowns across the world in the past year have already contributed to loss of jobs and business closures. These institutions have a small voice within the cultural landscape due to lack of budget and I, for one, am worried that that whisper may be further diminished.
Martha Hibbert is currently a Master’s student at King’s College London studying Cultural and Creative Industries with a focus on museums and heritage. With a background of History of Art, she is passionate about the accessibility, education, and community of art. She is hoping to pursue a career which makes the viewing and education of art more
inclusive and diverse for all.
You can find her on Instagram.