ENDANGERED MUSEUMS: HOW COVID-19 THREATENS CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS

File:Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid) 06b.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Museo_Thyssen-Bornemisza_(Madrid)_06b.jpg)

Jia Yu

As dust finally settles onto the cold marbled floors, a hollow silence prevails over the galleries and winding corridors. Invaluable paintings still hang on the walls and frozen statues yet reside on their pedestals. However, in the midst of our global pandemic, gone are the days where visitors from all corners of the world would pack into the museums, anxiously hoping to beset their eyes on treasures such as Las Meninas, Mona Lisa, Guernica, and other innumerable works of art. Many of these museum pieces were created many centuries ago and through the vicissitudes of time, have survived oblivion and occultation. As museums around the world close their doors to visitors, these museum pieces return to the familiar state of solitude that many had once endured for centuries.

As we learn to cope with our new “normalcy”, the fate of museums’ collections is rarely a matter of our immediate concern. Surely, we might think, these inanimate collections are safely behind guarded gates and moreover, cannot be sickened by illnesses. However, the sad truth is that museum pieces are facing a grave threat. Given the many museums are funded by visitor revenues, the standstill of the global tourism industry means that these cultural institutions are no longer collecting money from entrance fees nor from gift merchandises. As they struggle to survive in this precarious situation, numerous museums around the world are expected to close down, which would be an irrecoverable loss to humanity and its mission to provide public education. 

One New York Times article reports that according to Peter Keller, the director of the International Council of Museums, “All but about 5 to 7 percent of the world’s museums are currently shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic.” It is rational that an overwhelming majority of museums have chosen to temporarily close their doors to the public. It is a heart-breaking, yet necessary, sacrifice in order to curb the likely cross-infections amongst visitors who tend to overcrowd popular galleries. In the short run, it will also help these institutions lower their operational costs. 

Yet, museum enthusiasts share a common and unavoidable fear. Will these galleries actually re-open to the public? If so, would our beloved museums be the same as they were before? One piece of promising news comes from Germany where the government is considering the reopening of “museums, exhibitions, memorials, zoos and botanical gardens” and providing these institutions with a 10 million euro fund. Conversely, museums in other countries are less reassured. In the United Kingdom, the Charles Dickens Museum, which has commemorated this great author for almost a century, is treading on hazardously thin funds. Its director Cindy Sughrue fears that if “the social distancing measures continue beyond [September], then there’s a real danger that [the museum] will not survive.”

Museums are also contemplating another lamentable decision: selling off their prized artworks to make up for funding shortage. Traditionally, museums’ ethical guidelines only allow insitutitions to sell their art works in order to acquire new ones. It is only in these unprecedented crises that it has become morally defensible to auction off valuable pieces, in a process known as deaccession, in order to cover operational costs. 

Even in these difficult circumstances, our museums have not abandoned the public they seek to educate. Renowned art museums around the world are offering 360-degree virtual tours to visitors. Recently, I virtually toured the medieval galleries in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, a memorable experience which deepened my knowledge on the traditions of art collecting and display in Spain. Thus, in order to preserve our historical patrimony and other works of value to humanity, we must protect our museums at all costs. We must continue to show our support whether through touring virtually, presenting donations, or petitioning local governments to financially aid the museums. 

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