Cultural institutions during the pandemic

We analyse the evolution during the pandemic of cultural heritage institutions around the world.

Exhibition at Louvre

Exhibition at Louvre | Pixabay | Public Domain

Teleworking, changes in organization, loss of income, a speeding up of digitization processes… The effects of the pandemic on cultural institutions have been varied, but some constants can be seen the world over according to the study “How cultural heritage institutions around the wold have evolved during the pandemic”. The study analyses the situation of 16 cultural heritage institutions around the world and was presented on 22 and 23 October at the 43rd annual conference of the National Association of Business, Economics and Technology in the US, this year held via Zoom. Its authors share their conclusions here.

The year 2020 will go down in history as a time of VUCA, an acronym in English, characterized by its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. According to some authors, the current pandemic has meant the temporary or permanent closure of many companies around the world. Institutions dedicated to cultural heritage have also been affected at different levels.

In the literary search for sources dealing with the impact and evolution of cultural institutions during the pandemic, we did not find any specific publication relevant to the study. This is explained by the immediacy of the situation, which has not allowed time for these works to be published. Thus far the results seem logic, but what about all the online documents and articles published on the subject? As we said, this is a topic that has been discussed a great deal, and it may seem that everything has been said on the subject. Surprisingly, the conclusions of an analysis of these sources were far from confirming this assumption.

There is indeed a lot of talk about how the pandemic, lockdown and subsequent measures have affected cultural institutions, but these sources mainly represent individual voices at a specific institution explaining their particular situation. At most, they extend it to a specific group. So we find opinions on the difficulties faced by museums, theatres, and so on. Opinions. Particular experiences.

Further, the studies carried out with a more objective intention, because there are some, have been carried out by local, national or international organizations directly involved in the management of a certain group of institutions. Studies such as the ones conducted by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) or the Network of European Museums Organisation (NEMO) are particularly interesting, since they have access to a great deal of data and media, while also forming part, in this case, of the museum management world.

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As a result, it was considered that scientific-based research, external to the macro-organizations of cultural management, was necessary. Equally importantly, this research, unlike previous studies, should not take into account just a specific type of cultural institution (e.g. museums) or be limited to a single area (e.g. Europe). After contacting numerous institutions all over the world, 16 took part in our study, situated in six geographical areas: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania. The resulting group included different types of institutions divided into four categories: museums, arts centres, festivals and government cultural agencies.

In-depth interviews were conducted with all of them with the aim of understanding the actions and reactions of each during the spring-autumn 2020 period, obtaining some particularly interesting results, such as the fact that the March lockdown was not general for all the participating institutions and, in many places, was considered to be a short-lived situation that would soon return to normal. In these cases, it was decided not to take extreme measures to change the structure or model of supply, and to wait and see how everything evolved. Further, not all the institutions measure their success in the same way, but the pandemic affected all of them very significantly in terms of loss of revenue. Economic problems and staff cuts have been widespread and often threaten the survival of the institution itself.

he study found that, in some countries, the management of cultural institutions is more decentralized than in others, with measures therefore being taken by governments or the institution management. Perhaps the most important finding was the confirmation that the pandemic has, in general, accelerated a pre-existing trend that gives more specific weight to online activity, in terms both of working procedures, and the production and communication of activities. In bringing about this fast, unexpected internal switch to teleworking, institutions have often suffered from a lack of preparation and technical knowledge on the part of workers, as well as the resources and equipment to combat the crisis situation. This transition to distance working has, in many institutions, been a process of learning-by-doing, without the work teams being prepared and/or, in many cases, without the technological tools that would make it possible to do this work in optimum conditions.

Due to the pandemic, the movement to offer the contents of cultural institutions online has been common but not as general as might have been expected. Problems of connectivity can explain this in only one of the cases analysed, and, surprisingly, the most innovative digital proposals did not come from so-called Global North countries. Particular mention should be made, for example, of the case of the Museo de Arte Precolombino e Indígena (MAPI) in Montevideo, an institution in South America that reacted very quickly and clearly opted for digital media, which has been able to take advantage of the situation, very significantly increasing its position on social media beyond its traditional environment.

As for the future and the continuance of measures taken during the pandemic, despite so often hearing that “these changes are here to stay”, not all institutions agree as regards their work processes. Or the way their contents and/or cultural proposals are presented. What is common to all institutions is the desire to return to on-site activities and work as soon as possible, complemented by digital versions or otherwise.

Research brings to light new questions that are being tabled. For example, do publics still want direct interaction with cultural contents, or are they open to new experiences that allow a new or different application of storytelling? Do they want more experimentation or more contextualization? Are these tendencies complementary or mutually exclusive? Another question is whether digital content will become the content in itself rather than a tool to make institutions visible or attract new publics. Another study would be needed to answer these and other questions that emerge about the future of the cultural offer.

Then there are also concerns about whether this pandemic will make institutions evolve in the way they function internally and, in this case, how they can do so in a sustainable way. The pandemic may lead to changes in their internal structure and distribution of resources. Those in charge of online content are often outside professionals. Seeing the great importance this content has acquired during the pandemic, will it become an in-house service? Will it be more appreciated within the institutional structure from now on? Up until now, institutions that had a team devoted to digital content often viewed it as subsidiary to “traditional” communication and content. As this was usually the last department to join the institution, it was often limited in terms of human and financial resources. With the pandemic, it is the teams devoted to online content that have made it possible to move forward and remain “active” in the eyes of the public. These professionals have had to take the reins of the institution’s visibility and the lack of resources available to them has become even more evident. In this sense, the current situation does not seem viable in the long run. Will it change?

The participants in our study are: ADCK Centre culturel Tjibaou (Nouméa, New Caledonia), ArtsQuest™ (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, US), Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) (Barcelona, Spain), Francofolies (Paris/La Rochelle, France), Instituto de Cultura del Gobierno de la provincia de Corrientes (Corrientes, Argentina), Lahore Museum (Lahore, Pakistan), Museo de Arte Precolombino e Indígena (MAPI)  (Montevideo, Uruguay), Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Development of Archaeological Sites and Museums (Cairo, Egypt), Munch Museet (Oslo, Norway), Museo de Bellas Artes Franklin Rawson (San Juan, Argentina), National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH)  (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, US), Preservation PA (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, US), Sustainable Sky Lantern Festival (Pingxi, Taiwan), The Australian Armour Artillery Museum (Smithfield QLD, Australia), The National Gallery (Canberra, Australia) and Vikingeskibs Museet (Roskilde, Denmark).

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Cultural institutions during the pandemic