A girl runs over a social distancing marker. (Photo: Edgar Garrido / REUTERS)

At the beginning of the pandemic, Daniel –who works for the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature (INBAL)– and his colleagues began to keep a safe distance from each other. A few days later, administrative offices and museums were empty.

As soon as the pandemic alert turned to red in Mexico, Bellas Artes was left without its raison d’etre: the people who visit it. All the other museums also became silent.

Now, they have returned to their work –in a restricted way– and are adapting to the new normal.

An employee wearing a protective mask supervises the reopening of the Papalote Children’s Museum, after closing in March during the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Edgar Garrido / REUTERS)

The role of the museum

“Not all the museums (in the INBAL network) have reopened. Currently, the offices are disinfected daily. There are chlorine-covered mats, sanitizer is given out to clean hands, and there is no mail service,” shared Daniel about his new day-to-day life.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted all social coexistence and slowed down the economy. It is, though, also an opportunity to rethink the role of museums. Their major functions, education and recreation, were relegated to second place in the reactivation plans.

This is how the situation is seen by specialists who spoke in a series of talks organized by the Inés Amor Chair, part of the Cultural Communication Office at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), through its social networks.

A private security guard shows a girl where to clean her shoes, during the reopening of the Papalote Children’s Museum. (Photo: Edgar Garrido / REUTERS)

In terms of restarting activities in the new normal, there was no official consideration for museums. This is how Dolores Beistegui, Director of the Papalote System, explains it.

“Educate? Entertain? Are we a recreational space? They are two different concepts. There is superficial talk of generating an audience. The community is a mixture of users. Community members know and recognize each other, and they share a common goal,” says Beistegui about her audience and its role within the community.

Caption: A girl plays in the Papalote Children’s Museum. (Photo: Edgar Garrido / REUTERS)
Whilst in lockdown, many people chose to keep up both their recreational and cultural life by using digital resources. At the Urban Interactive Museum (MUI), this situation was addressed immediately.

“When we received news that the museum was to be closed (…) we were about to have an exhibition in April, as well as the launch of our new branding. The big challenge posed by Covid-19 has been to consider what a museum is, and how we want to reach all our different audiences,” says Victorino Morales, Director of Tec de Monterrey’s MUI, over the phone.

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Reinvent yourself or die

Despite the hurdles, MUI took on the challenge and used social networks to keep its vocation for community contact alive. “The strategy we designed was MUI online. At the beginning it was based on the use of social networks, such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and others for communication,” adds Morales.

During lockdown, MUI’s conversation with its public was kept alive thanks to its presence on social networks. In this virtual environment, the number of comments and “super fans” on Facebook increased. At the same time, MUI’s new image was ready to be launched.

“We joined the digital acceleration project of our host institution, the Tec. As a cultural institution, we’re also taking this course,” Morales points out.

For Beistegui, the crisis caused by the closure of the museum’s physical spaces is allowing it to take another step towards strengthening its dual role in society.

“The longer the crisis lasts, the more truth there is in what I say: it’s forcing us to die or to survive. And if we decide to live, we need to live differently because all our previous molds are broken and no longer work. It’s an opportunity for a profound and daring reflection,” she proposes.

Children play at the Papalote Children’s Museum. (Photo: Edgar Garrido / REUTERS)

Meanwhile, for Americo Castilla, former Argentinian Cultural Heritage Secretary, the pandemic is providing the perfect opportunity to get museums out of social ‘isolation’.

“Museums have been in social isolation almost since they were created. The ideals and goals of museums have long been in crisis. (Now) there is an opportunity for reformulation (…) there’s been a paradigm shift. There’s a world of other possibilities,” he shares.

For these specialists, the future of museums should be a hybrid vocation, which perhaps approaches the same people who have always been able to visit. Hopefully, their scope will be much bigger.

 

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