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Museums project looks at potential changed role in post-pandemic world

Ulster University is examining how the sector can emerge from lockdowns and refocus

Covid-19 has had a profound effect on the museum sector. Not only has it shut their doors to the public and starved many of them of crucial revenue streams but it has also given them space to consider their purpose in a changed world and explore new ways to engage with the public.

The Ulster University Museums, Crisis and Covid-19: Vitality and Vulnerabilities research project is investigating how the sector will emerge and refocus in the aftermath of the pandemic. The project focuses on how museums can contribute to community resilience and wellbeing and addresses sector adaptability as it adjusts how it engages and collaborates with audiences in response to Covid-19.

The project is being carried out in collaboration with the Museums Association, the Northern Ireland Museums Council, National Lottery Heritage Fund, and regional museums in Northern Ireland and is funded by UK Research and Innovation, explains principal investigator Prof Elizabeth Crooke.

Rapid response

The funding came as part of the UK rapid response to Covid. “We are researching the impact of Covid on museums in Northern Ireland and how they have mitigated against its worst impacts,” says Crooke, who is professor of heritage and museum studies at Ulster University.


“The project looks at three areas,” she says. “The purpose and resilience of museums, digital innovation and how they are engaging with the overall wellbeing agenda.”

Crooke is part of a six-strong team which is addressing three separate workstreams which aim to identify how museum pedagogy and practices must adapt to new audience needs; explore possibilities for co-produced community-digital innovation; and investigate the offer museums can make to support community resilience during and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

“Museums are places of comfort that bring colour to people’s lives,” she says. “But how do they do that in lockdown? And when we do come out of lockdown what kind of places do people want museums to be? What purpose does a museum have in a crisis? What’s the point of museums in a chaotic world? The project gives us a chance to consider those questions and think about the purpose of museums. We have been conducting in-depth interviews with key people in the sector in relation to those questions and we have also run a focus group involving some very visionary people.”

Covid wasn’t the only thing that happened in the past year, of course. “One of the really interesting things about 2020 was the other issues that came to the fore,” says Crooke. “One of them was Black Lives Matter. That had been going on for a very long time but there was something about 2020 that brought it to global attention. Why 2020? Was it because people were sitting at home more and watching TV and engaging with social media? The other was climate change. Aeroplanes aren’t flying; people aren’t driving cars, they’re going for walks and talking about hearing birdsong. Those moments matter to the museum world.”

Black Lives Matter has also helped fuel the debate about the decolonisation of museums whose collections come from empire.

“Is there a role for museums to play in big issues like that?” Crooke asks. “Does Covid allow us to recalibrate our purpose?”

Digital innovation

Northern Ireland museums have been active during the crisis including in digital engagement with the public. “Digital innovation is not just about scanning more objects and putting them online,” Crooke points out. “It’s about engagement and dialogue and replicating the gallery experience online. We’ve been talking about the wellbeing agenda for decades and we have some great examples of where museums tried to continue programmes such as by providing Covid-secure loan boxes to care homes.”

Museums have also been reaching out to the public through online webinars and other channels. “What we’ve learned is that museums are very agile,” she says. “It’s very easy to think of them as things that were always there and never change but that’s not true. The museum sector is very willing to try new things and learn new skills.”

She believes the sector still faces uncertain times. “There is a question about public willingness to return to museums. Will people be confident from a health and safety point of view? I hope governing bodies will judge museums’ success not on footfall only but online engagement and outreach as well. Other measures of success need to be found.”

Visitor spend

She also believes new funding mechanisms will have to be found to support those museums which are solely dependent on visitor spend for income.

The 18-month project officially began in December and is scheduled to conclude in mid-2022. But we won’t have to wait until then to learn how the museums sector has responded to Covid-19. “We will disseminate our findings as we go along,” says Crooke.

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times