Today is International Museum Day (IMD) and this is the 44th year this day has been celebrated. This IMD is a bit different as it is totally digital — although for Girl Museum this doesn’t really make a difference as we are a virtual museum! However, for all the other museums around the world — where in-person visitors are their bread and butter, and physical collections lay at the heart of their work, today marks a strange day. 

Since March 2020, museums around the world have closed their doors with heavy hearts. Museum staff were sent to work from home and in some cases furloughed (temporarily not allowed to work) or even lost their jobs. For those working from home, many museum staff have completely different jobs now — where they may have previously been focused on looking after physical collections or interacting with visitors daily, they have now turned to social media, videos and other online content. For many who work in museums, this time has been scary, with worries about funding, job security and the safety of our special places. 

However, I listened to a webinar a week into my work from home stint called ‘How to keep your audience engaged, entertained and inspired in the age of COVID-19’. This webinar, led by museum professionals from the US, had over 3000 people tune in live and covered challenges, opportunities and advice for museums during this pandemic. From this webinar I was filled with a sense of hope. In a challenging and often emotional situation, museums were not crumbling; instead the worldwide community of museums was adapting in ways we could never have anticipated and was emerging as a digital space where creativity and hope abounded. I was amazed that museums around the world, big and small, were finding new, incredibly inventive and creative ways to engage with audiences — to much success.

The range of things that museums have been up to during this pandemic is a true testament to the passion and dedication of the sector. Some incredible virtual tours have been developed from some of the most popular museums in the world e.g. MOMA, the Van Gogh Museum and Musee d’Orsay, all allowing audiences to visit museums they might otherwise never go to! Tim the Cowboy from the National Cowboy Museum has been lifting everyone’s spirits with his hilarious tweets. The J. Paul Getty Museum challenged art lovers to post photos of themselves recreating their favorite masterpieces from home and the response has been huge – and absolutely brilliant. Lots of museums are doing instagram lives; Historic Royal Palaces has done some fantastic live Q&A’s, the latest with the fabulous Lucy Worsley. Hands on museums like Eureka! have been creating science experiments you can do at home and the Elgin Museum has demonstrated how to do an archeological dig in your back garden! The way museums worldwide have adapted to the challenges of COVID-19 and used this time as an opportunity to get really creative and and not just survive but thrive, makes me so proud to be in this sector. It gives me hope that we will have some new museum converts when this is all over, who have seen how diverse, creative and really interesting museums can be! 

Through this hard work museums have unknowingly been demonstrating how the IMD 2020 theme of ‘Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion’ can work. While there are many barriers for people entering museums, COVID-19 has given museums the opportunity to become more diverse and inclusive. By shifting activities into the digital world and using museum content in new and exciting ways, museums have been able to engage with different audiences, even sometimes on an individual level. Where entrance fees, geography, perceived prejudice, disability and other factors may have been stopping people from entering museums before, many of these things are no longer a barrier during this pandemic. I hope that when we transition back into a world where museums are open daily for visitors, that many of these new audiences who turned to the arts and culture in the age of uncertainty will visit in person. 

-Tia Shah
Contributing Writer
Girl Museum Inc.

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