Portuguese museums activities during the confinement
At the beginning of the pandemic crisis, the Portuguese Government decreed a state of emergency, which was very restrictive in terms of mobility, forcing all workers in activities considered non-essential to remain at home. For this reason, due to confinement, most museums and, in particular, the smaller ones, simply closed and did not maintain any type of communication activity with the public. Others were limited to disseminating virtual visits or videos of the museum space.
On the other hand, some of the main museums tried to maintain an open communication channel, through social networks, more flexible than institutional websites. In general, these actions were carried out by the directors and the curatorial team.
The National Museum of Ancient Art created a regular program entitled “Despite the distance, art is a bridge that unites us”, in which the director accompanied by a curator, with a web camera alone in the museum, produced short videos, each describing and explaining the historical context and the meaning of a work of art.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art made a Diary of the Little Things, daily published over the confinement, on a total of 60 posts, with a collection of photos of the museum’s works of art or related subjects, accompanied by an explanatory text, also authored by the director of the museum or one of the curators.
Also, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, the largest and most important private museum in Portugal, has been presenting works from the collection related to the day’s events, in addition to publishing short videos about the museum’s works. It has launched surveys, asking the public to choose one of two objects or works of art to talk about, which reinforces communication with its virtual visitors.
A lot of museums followed their example and started publishing similar contents. The Museum of the Sacred Art at Funchal, located in the so-called island of flowers, created a thematic project entitled “Like an expanded garden”, with floral details from its art collection.
However, perhaps one of the most curious interventions at this level is performed by this museum, which created a virtual museological environment, asking the public to put an object of their devotion there, presenting it, telling their story and, therefore, transforming it in a museum’ object, with the aim of documenting the experiences of religiosity and private devotion in the domestic space, but also aiming to create a virtual exhibition at the same time.
It should be noted that, in Portugal, museums have no tradition in the use of digital tools or strategies, looking at them with some suspicion and even disregard. The websites and social networks are used mainly to transmit institutional information about exhibitions, events, educational department activities, timetables, and access conditions, eventually highlighting some of the main works in the collection. So, this presence in the virtual space is unprecedented and marks a new functional identity for museums in this time of crisis.
On the other hand, most of the museums’ directors are recruited on the basis of the scientific domain of the collection: art history, archaeology, anthropology. They are not museologists, even because academic formation in museum studies is very incipient here. So, communication or cultural mediation in the museum is very restricted to data dissemination in that particular field, not an active dialogue and interaction with local communities.
Strategies for reopening museums in Portugal
The national ICOM committee conducted a survey of Portuguese museums in the past few weeks and concluded that many museums in the country wanted to remain closed because there is great incertitude about the public reaction to the opening.
National and regional museums located in the main cities opened, but this was not the case for smaller museums, with a local tutelage, for example, because their audiences are essentially scholars and seniors. On the other hand, national museums were until very late waiting for specific guidelines and for hygiene equipment, such as masks, gloves, acrylic barriers and signage.
The Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage, which manages national museums and monuments, has released a set of general guidelines, such as the mandatory use of a mask, social distance, limited entrances and frequent hand and space hygiene, limiting themselves to below guidelines from the national Board of Health. It was also recommended that information sheets and computer terminals, that can be handled by the visitors, be removed. In addition to the general recommendations for social distance, the use of a mask and hygiene, the conditions imposed on visitors are very restrictive and enforced a minimum area of 20m2 per visitor. Furthermore, it was advised to purchase tickets online, and this is expected to be a way of regulating the influx of visitors, as long as the implementation of systems that allow controlling the capacity of spaces open to the public. In addition, it provides for the possibility of changing the route or closing parts of the circuit to account for and limit the number of visitors and ensure the necessary hygiene conditions. It also determines that each museum director establishes a maximum visiting time for each visitor.
Also ICOM Portugal published a text entitled “25 Recommendations to the museums opening”. In this text, a set of rules is listed in accordance with the general health rules, but it also presents some programmatic guidelines, proposing the planning of “new exhibition, educational and cultural programs, aimed at smaller audiences”, articulating “digital programming with the sensorial dimension of programming, deepening methodologies and resources in a creative and sustainable way”, as well as reinforcing the dialogue between tutelages, with other museums and “with local communities, commercial agents, residents and cultural associations, schools and other educational institutions, through the promotion of creative and sustainable projects and activities”.
Many museums opened on May 18, International Museum Day, but it is difficult to analyse the impact of this opening. Usually, the success of the activities of the International Museum Day is measured through the influx of the public, which is precisely what we want to avoid. The only thing that can be said is that there were visitors, in an increased tendency related to common days, and that everyone complied with the necessary sanitary measures.
The future of museums
“A world of masks” is the title of a virtual exhibition opened on International Museum Day, addressing a global, transversal and a crucial contemporary theme: the masks. It is an exhibition organized by the Pharmacy Museum, but with the participation of the Science Museum of the University of Coimbra, the museums of the Marionette, of the Orient and of Ethnology and presents more than 30 masks from these museums and coming from different cultures and types of uses. It would be an epigraph of the future of the museums after this pandemic time.
This situation is unprecedented and in the return to normality will not be equal to the normality that we knew before. For this reason, museums must adapt and reinvent themselves, both in terms of functioning and in terms of strategies and discourses. Some opportunities can be found here, including the opportunity to correct some weaknesses that were being recognized in the previous situation.
All the preventive measures and the drastic fall in tourism will have a direct impact on the number of visitors and, therefore, on the museum’s revenues. The concern is greater if it will take a long time to unravel the fear of gatherings and of staying in public spaces, distancing the public from the museum. There will be no overcrowded museums and macro exhibitions, bringing together masterpieces from various international museums, will no longer be possible, at least, in the short term. However, this model has been the target of criticism for some time and has been showing clear signs of exhaustion. So, while some visitors are probably very pleased with the expectation of finding in the museum a space for contemplation, without the pressure and noise of the groups that rush and gather, others and, in these, most of the museums’ professionals, are concerned with the management of tickets and visits: how and when to limit entries; how to manage group visits; how to avoid the tendency to crowd in certain rooms. On the other hand, the decrease in revenues will have a serious impact on the management of museums and therefore on their programming. It is foreseeable that temporary workers, scholarship holders, eventual services will be dismissed.
For all of these reasons, many curators and museologists have been referring that this is an opportunity to resume what has been their central mission, focussed on their own collections and on its accessibility. The question is if the preservation and security of the collections will be valued, focusing on the object, or if the exhibition and communication will be valued, focusing on the subject, which is the visitor.
It is clear is that the audiences will be different, and the spaces and exhibitions will also not be the same. Despite reinforcing the importance of the museum with the community and with the various audiences, including the virtual public, museum objects, that is, musealia, have a crucial role at this moment. At a time of great changes and in which the values that we took for granted are questioned, what remains is the cultural heritage identity and this, now, allows for a reassuring sensation of security and continuity. The object of the museum and the knowledge associated with it are identity marks that the museum has an obligation to clarify and transmit, reinforcing its role in the community. This should be the axis of the transformation that is being announced, rethinking the relationship between the museum and the public and the communication between them.
A transformative phenomenon affects both individual and collective feelings, motivations and convictions, leading to the re-evaluation of the essentials and a sense of solidarity. All of this could be extinguished at the end of the crisis but is more likely to leave deeper marks.
In view of the exceptional conditions that transform all daily life and experiences, a time of change is promoted, which will certainly affect the museum. The pandemic forced a break from the traditional work routines at the museum and the adoption of communication strategies in the virtual space. This could be an opportunity to try new discursive modalities, calling in new contributors and integrating their varied readings, sensitivities, perceptions, memories and experiences. It would be time to test the principles advocated in the literature in museum studies, recommending an action focused on the visitor, but still with little impact on daily practice.
When the museum is opening its doors again, perhaps it can definitively abandon the unifying proposal of passive observation and come to admit other types of experiences, becoming a space for collective intervention. Perhaps it can abandon the position of exclusive authority, specialized in the scientific domain of the collection, to admit other contributions. Perhaps the museum will effectively become a tool for the collective construction of the feeling of belonging.
In the museum that will emerge, we may be able to find the ‘imaginary museum’, as described by Albert Camus, where everyone is virtually connected and where global, interactive and collaborative work be done and access to collections is provided to suit the different types of publics.
If at this moment, the museum is working reactively to circumstances, using information and communication technologies and rehearsing virtual interaction, without establishing a consistent program, perhaps these initiatives, even if they are now random and fragmented, can definitively establish a cyberculture, which does not threaten the museum’s materiality, but which adds other intangible components, opening space for collaboration, connection and discussion and, therefore, the creation of knowledge and social intervention.
The theme proposed by ICOM for the International Day, “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion”, chosen 4 years ago, has gained an unexpected relevance. At a time when the museum faced times of contingency and social distance, it is now necessary to promote equality, focusing on the fundamental concepts of respect for diversity and the right to difference, and that could be done being inclusive, guaranteeing everyone, the space that belongs to each one.
Text written after the talk with Niloofar Yazdkhasti, on Instagram Live @museumatters, May 18th, #IMD2020