Here’s How Museums Engage Amid COVID-19

With Virtual Content, Museums find Global Audience

223
The digital photo wall and interactive timeline at the Chinese American Museum, which plans to open in phases through 2021. Photo courtesy David Uy

As staff at the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) adjusted to working from home beginning in early March, the work of Wendy Nanan remained boxed on the museum’s first floor. 

Three months after the AMA was set to showcase the “seminal” artwork of the Indo-Trinidadian artist in person, the museum shifted the gallery to Zoom. Over an hour, Museum Director Pablo Zuñiga hosted a YouTube livestream performance celebrating Nanan and featuring Trinidadian poets Andre Bagoo, Shivanee Ramlochan and Desirée Seebaran. 

Zuñiga said this virtual offering and others like it have become AMA fixtures as the museum remains closed to visitors, changing what it means to operate a museum amid COVID-19. 

“We have a new museum, Zuñiga said. “It’s got four walls — the four walls are Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.” 

Like the AMA, which is the oldest museum of modern and contemporary Latin American and Caribbean art in the United States, museums across the District are ramping up virtual programming as the pandemic persists. Phase 2 of the coronavirus recovery plan permits museums to open with capacity limits and social distancing measures in place, though many museums are slow to reopen. The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex, has not announced reopening dates. A Smithsonian spokesperson told WUSA9 the Zoo and Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center will be the first locations to welcome in-person visitors.

With most smaller museums closed, staff members are building digital galleries and reorienting visitors online. At the Museum of the Palestinian People, curators and experts have reproduced the museum virtually, offering viewers a 360° look at the artifacts, artwork and personal narratives that compose the three galleries. Highlights from the permanent collection, historically contextualized by captions, are organized on the website chronologically. 

Museum Director Bshara Nassar said docents are available to guide visitors on virtual tours. Though the museum opened in the District only a year ago, Nassar said the following and support surrounding its mission — to explore and celebrate Palestinian history, arts and culture — has enabled the museum to produce high-quality, digital content amid the pandemic. 

He added that the virtual galley was made possible by “[the] resource of [the] community that really, genuinely cares about the museum.”

Private Institutions First to Reopen

Private institutions, including the Spy Museum and the Museum of the Bible, were two of the first museums in the District to reopen. For institutions in the process of organization and construction, the pandemic has altered, but not unsettled, planned openings. The Chinese American Museum is slated to open in phases through 2021, Executive Director David Uy said. Uy said staff at the museum — which according to its website intends “to make the Chinese American story accessible to the nearly 22 million annual visitors to Washington, DC” — have always wanted to curate online content. The necessity for meaningful and digitally accessible content amid the pandemic means the institution is simply “stepping up” online programming, he added. 

“Sneak peak hours,” which gave visitors insight into the museum’s progress and special exhibits, have been on hold since the building closed to guests in February. But Uy said limits on in-person visits are not hindering engagement with the soon-to-be-open exhibits. 

“We want to go beyond the brick and mortar walls,” he said. “This pandemic’s just made that more apparent.”

So far, digital engagement has spanned a virtual program on “Asian American Entertainment During the Exclusion Era” and a panel and screening of the film “Legacy,” which recounts the Chinese Railroad Workers’ contribution to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Visitors can also submit photos and stories to appear on a digital wall on the museum’s first floor. 

The willingness to embrace all things virtual — from meetings to educational programming to exhibits — will likely inspire museums and institutions to rethink long-term operations, Uy said. 

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised how technology has been there for us when we needed it the most,” he said. It’s forced everybody to adopt technologies that are going to be helpful even after COVID.”

For museums that retain far less square footage than the Smithsonian’s 23 campuses, embracing online curation also expands a small museum’s global reach. The AMA, for instance, elevates Latin American art, which despite its scope, influence, and stylistic and cultural significance was once a “novelty” for many people in the U.S., Zuñiga said. 

But thanks to virtual galleries that reach people across platforms, time zones and countries, the museum remains open to “people that would never set foot in the place,” he added. For AMA, this open access underscores the museum’s commitment to education and empowerment. 

“We really do have an opportunity to educate a whole new generation,” Zuñiga said. “It’s a question of identity, and that’s what museums do — they pass on the history of our identity, of our culture.”

Eva Herscowitz is a journalism student at Northwestern University currently interning with the Hill Rag. She writes for Northwestern’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern. You can reach her at [email protected]