Efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 have fundamentally, and in many cases permanently, transformed the landscape of cultural consumption. As of Monday, March 16th, over 400 major US museums have closed their doors and ceased their traditional programming. While this is an essential part of collectively weathering a public health crisis that is likely to overwhelm the US healthcare system in a matter of days, these closures invariably introduce a deep degree of precarity for hundreds of beloved cultural organizations, and many are at risk of suffering grave financial harm as a result. Moreover, their mission is at risk of pausing, since they will for some time be unable to serve as spaces of respite, of learning, and of interpersonal exchange. But while buildings may be closed, museums and other cultural organizations should consider the real opportunities to serve their communities. Indeed, some have already begun to do so. 

In eight case studies of art museums conducted in 2017, we learned about the importance of creative programming that extends beyond the walls of the museum directly into underserved communities. In some cases, for instance at LACMA and the Warhol Museum, this has been achieved through deliberate strategies to connect with new audiences. In another case, we saw important partnerships emerge to maintain engagement with new audiences while the Studio Museum in Harlem is closed for renovation. While almost all of this work was face to face, it demonstrated a willingness among traditional arts and cultural organizations to work beyond their own buildings to engage their communities. 

Cultural organizations will now need to engage their audiences virtually in order to maintain a vital role as a resource for education, wellness, and social discourse. The digitization of collections over the past decade has enabled art museums, at least, to have a solid online presence. For instance, over 2,500 museums have some or all of their collection digitally available for virtual tours or browsing through Google Arts and Culture. Still, few arts and cultural organizations have attempted to bring even a small portion of their visitor experience, programming, education, and other community engagement work into a virtual space. With the rapid closure of their spaces, arts and culture organizations are developing new strategies for engaging the quarantined public. Here are three examples. 

  • Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University has postponed its on-site Art & Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon event. It is hosting a virtual edit-a-thon instead. The practice of organizing volunteers to correct the bias that favors male artists on the crowd sourced encyclopedia is a great example of an activity that can be hosted virtually rather than in-person.
  • Under the new Twitter hashtag #museumsfromhome, some curators are uploading 60 second lightning talks on featured art objects. A UK museum professional, @sasha_coward, started the practice with a 60 second story of a toy pig, now in the National Maritime Museum, which had helped its owner survive the Titanic. Several curators in the UK have since uploaded stories of their own favorite cultural items. The practice has grown interdisciplinary; some scientists posting videos under the hashtag #sciencefromhome are citing @sasha_coward as inspiration. It is not clear the extent to which we are seeing forms of decentralized curating here and how they will connect to organizational roles.  
  • Recognizing that there is a huge population of school-age children craving education and engagement from home (and parents desperate for distractions), the Cincinnati Zoo has leveraged Facebook Live to schedule a regular live educational program of “Home Safaris.” In these “safaris,” zoo instructional staff teach about, and play with, terribly cute animals like the Brazilian Porcupine. While remote participants may not be able to touch the animals themselves, they can feel closer to them than one might be if visiting in person, and so at moments the experience can become almost tactile even while remaining virtual. Participants can vote the night before for what animal they might like to see profiled the following day, adding another element of engagement to the community. 
  • And some online programming was developed ahead of the current crisis, such as a Paleographical Challenge that Yale’s Beinecke Library launched earlier this year. Participants test their skills in paleography using daily identification or transcription quizzes. This program digitally introduces a playful element to a collection of early modern manuscripts, and provides a level of access and proximity that many casual readers may not experience otherwise. It has proved to be an interesting way to reach a wider community than would be able to visit in person, and provides a way for the current exhibition to continue to engage an audience now that the facility itself is closed to visitors. 

Have you seen other virtual museum programming and community engagement models that are addressing the unique demands of the current crisis? If so, please send them our way. In the coming weeks, we will be tracking approaches from the field and amplifying successful models that meet the moment.