It’s been a weird and disorienting month. Like a lot of people, I start my morning with a flood of new information about COVID-19. Another celebrity has died. Another friend thinks they might have it but they can’t get tested. Deaths just jumped up again. Seemingly recovered patients test positive again. Here’s the plan for re-opening. It’s exhausting, and I know I’m far from the only one who thinks that.
I see many of the emotions I’ve felt reflected in the museum communities I follow. We are confused and anxious. We feel cut off – from each other, from our volunteers, from our communities. Our jobs have changed dramatically. Where a few weeks ago I was scheduling group tours and events, working with docents, and preparing evaluation projects for our next exhibit, I am now doing none of those things. The immediate concern became getting out digital materials for teachers and putting up our public programs online. It has been a frantic race to get everything we can up as quickly as possible, leaving little room for thinking about what comes next.
But among the chaos, I also see the shining bright spot that is our museum educators and social media staff. I see them putting out online programs. I see them offering Zoom classes and tours to students stuck at home. I see them working tirelessly to create access to resources for families. Incredible amounts of work are being done to keep a continuity of programming going during these weird and confusing times. I have come to seek out their optimism and their boundless creativity to get me through my day.
That bright spot also comes with its fair share of struggles. As much as educators have stepped up to fill the void left by our in-person activities, there is still constant worry about what waits for us on the other side. Major museums across the country have furloughed or laid-off significant numbers of their staff, and plenty of others have cut salaries by up to 20%. I’ve heard from staff at our partner museums that they were already in dire financial straits before the lockdown, and now they face permanent closure. Americans For the Arts estimates that the current toll of the pandemic has been $4.5 billion in losses to the arts and culture sector. I think it goes without saying, but for someone who works at a small local museum, the thought of museums with multi-billion dollar endowments needing to furlough staff is not comforting. It’s not helped by the heart-wrenching announcement from The Museum of Modern Art that they had terminated all freelance educator contracts. “It will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”
Without an end in sight, we can lose ourselves to the enormity of this crisis. It is too easy to fall down the terrifying spiral of what ifs. But even in the face of all this, I think our museum community can continue to serve and educate, and that we have a responsibility to do so.
It is critical to remind our communities that history is a series of steps from one action to the next, and although we can’t see the steps that will come in the next few months or years, we can look to the past to show us what has been done before. We can look to the end of the 1918 Flu, as many observers have already, to see the effects of social distancing measures and how lives were saved, or lost. We can look to art and music that expresses similar feelings of hopelessness. We can see the revolutionary changes in public health policy and epidemiology. We can look back on frightening and overwhelming circumstances knowing as the subjects and artists do not, how the story will end.
On her last day in the office, Reggie Lynch, the [Akron Art Museum’s] curator of community engagement, took a detour through the galleries to commune with a Helen Frankenthaler painting called Wisdom (1969). She thought of the Abstract Expressionist’s artistic process, the slow methodical bleeding of pigment into the canvas. “I found myself tracing the lines of where she was spreading the paint and took a minute to pause and find connection with another human,” Lynch said. “That’s what art does.” via ARTnews
Take a breath. This pandemic is far from over, and it’s okay to take a moment for yourself. I, like many museum workers, have been full steam ahead on digitization projects and it’s been difficult for me to really step back and think about what’s happening. Museums do not want to be left behind in the frantic race for people’s attention and we don’t want to be forgotten among the new avalanche of breaking news, online programs, and kids coloring pages. But now is the time for us to pause and reflect. Take the time you have to think about what you, and your museum, really need to be right now. What do you really need to offer? What is it that your community turns to you for normally, and how can you continue to provide that? What do they need now that you don’t have a physical space for them to gather in?
Museums, more than any other institution, have the ability to comfort our communities, and it is our responsibility to do so. Across the board, Museums rate as some of the most trusted types of organizations, more than state and federal agencies, other NGOs, and local newspapers. With the current climate of misinformation wildly varied responses to this crisis, it is imperative that we be a rock of the people that rely on us. We are seen as impartial community guides that should recommend and model behavior for the people we serve. It is therefore critical that we use our collections and our knowledge to create a sense of calm, even when we don’t feel it ourselves. We are looked to as guides to the human experience, and we should use all of the tools in our toolbox to do that.
We should use history to show how we have come out of pandemics in the past. We should use art as catharsis for our overwhelming emotions. We should use science to explore what is happening and how to fight it.
Life is not going back to normal any time soon. Normal is so far gone that the first week of March seems like a dream. There’s a good chance that many of the museums I know and care about will shutter permanently, and if, or when, that happens, the world will lose a little more of its cultural history. But museums have the power and the responsibility to provide some level of comfort for our communities, and until this is over, I believe that is where our focus should be.