Making the Most of a Crisis
Simon Adlam, a New Zealander based in the United States and working internationally in museum transformations, suggests that it will be the fast movers in the digital space that will make the most of an urgent opportunity.
As museums and galleries open their shutters, is it the perfect time for a reset? Whether it’s New Zealand, a nearly COVID-19 free nation, or the United States who is struggling to wrestle the virus into submission, it is clear this is not business as usual, at least for the foreseeable future. The swiftly moving global reality presents a unique chance to harness change leveraging national, regional and global networks.
Aotearoa’s Time to Lead
With the leadership of Jacinda Ardern and her cabinet, New Zealand’s brand has never been stronger around the globe. There’s a potential for a new kind of ‘Kiwi Exceptionalism'.
There’s a potential for a new kind of ‘Kiwi Exceptionalism'.
There was once ‘American Exceptionalism’, characterised by a mid-century moment where America’s global role and impacts were recognized by its values and culture. That’s no longer the case. New Zealanders in the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) should look to lead, or at least demand a seat at the table of global discussions, especially as it applies to indigenous voices, creativity and ingenuity. As we emerge from this pandemic, there is an urgent need for sector leadership to rise from within, delivering a new vision of a dynamic creative collective that can be maximised in new and enterprising ways.
Judging, Debating and Forecasting
It is easy to cast my mind back to a moment in March. As my judging colleagues and I gathered from around the world, via Zoom and Google to score the International Museum Digital Media Awards (The Museums and the Web 2020 GLAMI Awards), a new pandemic was bearing down and it was changing our way of life. Some of us found time to step away from our duties in order to debate the importance of media to a museum’s success. We quickly agreed that for many, survival was at stake and digital media was the platform that could set them apart. Ironically, the conversation embedded itself into the nominees' strength of engagement with their visitors and the fate of museums post-pandemic.
We pinpointed two sets: those that were serving their audiences with robust digital engagement before Coronavirus; and those that provided successful immersive, interactive, or linear experience onsite, but lacked the resources to leverage this media off-site. In the end, who will be the winners and losers in our new global reality?
Francesco De Grazia recreating Caravaggio’s “Boy With a Basket of Fruit”. Photo: Francesco De Grazia/Instagram.
I’ll admit, these recreations cannot replace the experience of visiting these sublime collections in person, but it’s creative, the community is engaged, and it’s fun.
Here in the United States, my colleague Ariel Schwartz directs interactive media for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the most respected encyclopedic art museums in the States. He also leads the MuseWeb GLAMi Awards. For Schwartz, COVID-19 has unintentionally created a captive audience by boosting global engagement using virtual museum experiences and creative art projects. One such experience is the popular J. Paul Getty Museum’s inspired art recreations at home. I’ll admit, these recreations cannot replace the experience of visiting these sublime collections in person, but it’s creative, the community is engaged, and it’s fun.
The Smaller the Circle, the More Profound the Universe
In the mid-twentieth century, the Philadelphia Museum of Art redefined how museums presented collections by using immersive galleries, which to this day inform the design of the industry’s beloved art museums. A virtual experience will never surpass the heavenly experience one feels walking through the Louvre, but in these new times, Schwartz thinks we should at least strive for it.
The pandemic has emptied the museum and rather than accept the limitations the shutdown imposed, we should embrace the opportunities that have been constantly overlooked. He offers, “I believe the smaller the circle that circumstances force you to draw, the more profound the universe you will discover within it.” Schwartz challenges these institutions to use the power of digital media to link museums’ collections to profound experiences that define our time, to use new platforms to engage and debate contemporary issues in society, art and culture.
Moving Closer to the Winners’ Table
Berlin Qatar. Photo: Simon Adlam.
Some institutions have overhauled their digital platforms to be more responsive and focused on a user-driven experience and content specific to their needs. They have retooled their online presence with intuitive websites and apps focusing on the user’s point of inquiry, built sound internal infrastructure while offering real-time programming and support. A few museums added tailored content to their social media on multiple platforms allowing them to target new audiences. They all moved closer to the winners’ table.
Others have created outstanding new site-based media experiences but being locked between four walls, they are now struggling to deliver content to an audience that may no longer exist. Lacking a rich digital presence outside those walls, their new onsite media creations could be a swansong for some of these institutions.
This pandemic has produced a museological shift, and viewing the candidates for these media awards led me to ask some deeper questions about our current and required future state. It was clear some of the entries we were looking at could quickly adapt to their audiences’ needs by using media and some just could not. It has been fascinating to understand how others in the industry are reacting to this shift.
Time for a Swift Rethink
Jenny Holzer “The Oldest Fears are the Worst Ones”. Photo: NSCU Libraries.
It is evident that our GLAM communities could be more agile in how they demonstrate their value to the stakeholders they serve while being true to their missions. Libraries have been more proactive than museums and galleries, and there’s plenty to learn from them. Our creative and cultural organisations should be swift in rethinking the tools needed to reconnect to their audiences in these post-lockdown times. I’ve discussed these issues with Tim Walker of Tim Walker Associates in Auckland, someone with a long history of working in and with New Zealand museums and art galleries, and on looking at ‘future libraries’.
Walker sees an opportunity for a post COVID-19 bi-product, an emergence of a new dynamic arts, gallery and museum experience in New Zealand. The vibrancy of this movement might center around how clearly and incisively institutions and organisations understand their DNA. Focusing on the kaupapa and asking the hard questions is the grueling work that needs to be done now. Thinking beyond your limits and recognising that your assets are linked to global conversations about contemporary issues should be happening immediately.
“I guess for me it’s the key question; Is your institution’s purpose clear (WHY it exists) and focused enough to allow you to assess every aspect of WHAT you do, WHERE and HOW you allocate resources? Clearly the WHO is central to this; thinking about users, communities and partnerships and how each will shift/emerge/decline in the face of the challenges and opportunities ahead? We have seen the activation of online collections as an immediate digital response from the sector.
But in and of themselves, online collections are an existing WHAT, HOW and WHERE. Where it becomes interesting is when adaptive digital approaches dig into a deeper/wider sense of purpose – that is, the wider community and societal impacts museums seek to have through the work they do. New Zealand institutions are typically owned by and funded by their communities, all of whom will be facing huge need right now.”
Status Quo is Death
Monnaie de Paris Subodh Gupta. Photo: Simon Adlam.
Walker and I agree that opportunities will surely be lost by returning to a business as usual approach. With media being a critical tool in an organisation’s toolbox, you can’t assess its future until you’ve answered that question and a component of that assessment should include robust digital media. In a post-COVID New Zealand, there is a chance for digital media to expand and deepen the societal impacts of an organisation’s work.
What does this mean? Walker sees the potential for our industry if it is focused on being more relevant and meaningful. For example, he asks, “Can a coordinated approach, based in New Zealand, be a platform for progressing wānanga between indigenous practitioners and thought-leaders in New Zealand and internationally? And do the challenges the sector is facing provide an opportunity for national institutions to transcend their Wellington location in new and more impactful ways? Can national and bigger regional institutions act as interconnected nodes and from that base, is it possible to activate national/global ecosystem links rather than principally act on a ‘hub with smaller institutions as ‘spokes’ model?” We hope that answer is yes.
If we focus on digital media post-quarantine as a way to reconnect locally, regionally and globally, will we witness new business models that could reinvigorate the sector? And ultimately offer new value to the communities our institutions serve? There will be a silver lining to this global pandemic; the arts will survive if not thrive and new models of leadership will emerge to help re-establish our industry’s engagement with existing and new audiences now and into the foreseeable future.
Now more than ever, it’s up to those who see the opportunity, to lift above the day-to-day tactical fixing-up and rebalancing and lead boldly and strategically. It would be a shame to waste a crisis.
Read more about the GLAMIi Awards here https://mw20.museweb.net/glami-award-finalists/
Written by Simon Adlam
Simon Adlam is a New Zealander, working internationally as a museum executive specializing in museum transformations. His perspective is shaped by a long career in museums, beginning in the United States working for institutions like the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the late Louise Bourgeois. He’s worked in Doha, Berlin, and Paris and has delivered hundreds of museum projects, exhibitions and public commissions around the globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @simon_adlam.