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Curatorial Dreaming in the Age of COVID-19

Category: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion

The Museums and Equity in Times of Crisis series explores how museums can center diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in the decisions and plans they make for weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. In this edition, professors and consultants Erica Lehrer and Shelley Ruth Butler ponder how museums can engage their communities in critical reflection on the work and purpose of museums as part of their digital initiatives.

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As museums around the world have temporarily shut their doors in response to public health calls for physical distancing, many have rallied to develop new ways to keep museums accessible. These have focused on online exhibitions, tours, and other creative strategies to keep audiences engaged, entertained, and inspired—or ease anxious minds with their most calming art. Such initiatives are admirable, even crucial, during this unprecedented social upheaval. But we would argue there is an opportunity for museums to go deeper, rather than shrinking into a status quo ante where only “highlights” and permanent exhibits go online. Just as the pandemic is laying bare stark global and national inequalities, museums must recognize that they themselves are woven into a social fabric that is proving to be woefully frayed. As we anticipate the social and institutional effects of the novel coronavirus, it seems worth asking: how can we, as teachers, scholars, museum visitors, and community members, engage critically with museums that are closed?

We hope museums will take this opportunity to use their collections to stimulate creative engagement with pressing issues such as social inequity, the rise of populism, and global warming—as well as with internal institutional issues like object restitution, community consultation, and the gendered hierarchies in and overwhelming whiteness of museums. Thanks to community activism, critical scholarship, and a changing public culture, many museums have become more democratic in the last few decades, departing from their history of serving the elite and aiding in the reproduction of the social order. The process is ongoing, and has intensified in the US, Canada, and the UK recently with calls for institutional ‘decolonization’ and for cutting ties with donors linked to issues like the opioid crisis and fossil fuel extraction. Can this moment of forced distancing provide new angles of view on these difficult discussions? Can museums spur quarantined publics to contemplate museums’ entrenched biases, critically engage with their collections, and invent new ways to relate to them?

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As we argue in the introduction to our book Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions, exhibitions naturalize particular ways of looking at the world, but they can also clear paths for new ways of seeing. People’s relationships to museums—how we are asked, taught, and permitted to use these spaces—should also be open to the most radical re-thinking. We urge museums to view the current ‘state of exception’ not only as a constraint (which it obviously is), but as a moment to experiment. For instance, museums could offer design software that allows exhibitions to be re-curated on a web platform, or re-captioned with new interpretive texts. Imagined shows could be curated whole cloth by aspiring curators, museum critics, students, and community groups. The interactive online game-in-development Occupy White Walls, for example, sidesteps art-world gatekeepers by allowing users to not only curate virtual exhibits, but build and populate whole virtual museums. Thematic shows cutting across traditional taxonomies could address such pressing topics as: empathy, global interconnectedness and the viral quality of ideas, the vulnerabilities of aging, notions of sickness and healthcare, and why inequality exists. Rapid-response collecting has been on the rise since 9-11 (and is gaining steam in the current pandemic), but how about “quick curating”?

What might museums do to connect, sustain, and—most importantly—diversify their audiences during this crisis? Are they willing and able to open their collections and archives more deeply, to support opportunities for radical re-thinking? Might they anticipate the memory and mourning of this current event? How can they center, enfranchise, and invest in the most marginalized individuals, whose precariousness has suddenly been made so much more visible? This is also a moment to consider just how accessible museums actually are to a full range of citizens (and non-citizens) in various national contexts, in either digital or analog form.

In our teaching, and in Curatorial Dreaming workshops, we’ve witnessed how students, researchers, artists, docents, and curators can design powerful and moving imagined exhibitions for specific museums, as well as for civic spaces such as airports, hospitals, festivals, and shopping centers. At a time when socializing in public endangers our communities, it could be energizing to dream of innovative ways to bring together objects, art, knowledge, and people. Teachers could use virtual museum tours to instill critical museum visitorship skills, increasing students’ sense of ownership and agency in these institutions that should serve them. Community members could be given micro-grants to mobilize museum collections—or assemble new ones—and invent exhibitions that creatively address issues that concern them. Museum-university partnerships and community-based experiments are increasingly common, but are often devalorized, exhibited in out-of-the-way galleries. With all museum real estate suddenly virtual, this is a moment ripe for inversion.

To be sure, imagining the exhibitions we want, even designing them in cyberspace, cannot replace real, concrete physical changes on museum walls, in their collections, nor in their staffing. But as social activist Naomi Klein recently stated, quoting economist Milton Friedman, “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” What we dream today could become reality later, rather than a post-crisis return to business as usual. We hope that museum leaders will use this unanticipated upending of our relationships to time, space, technology—and each other—to invite and support the widest range of constituents in deepening their critical and creative engagement with museum collections and galleries. If they do, when these key civic institutions re-open, audiences may come to them not only with new enthusiasm, but with new eyes.

About the authors:

Erica Lehrer is a Professor in the History Department at Concordia University in Montreal.

Shelley Ruth Butler teaches in the McGill Institute for Canadian Studies, and is Principal Consultant at Curatorial Dreams.

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Comments

1 Comment

  1. I can’t help feeling that this article would be more useful if the topics of diversity, inclusion, etc. had been couched in the context of the most pressing matters museums currently confront: health, safety, solvency, security, staff welfare, and so forth. Without doubt, the present pandemic is a disruption. To place the emphasis on interpretation and curatorial prerogatives could be seen as exploitive.

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