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I have imagined how museum folks felt as they stood in the gallery halls of the Louvre, Uffizi, or Victoria & Albert Museum moments before they started to remove the artwork off of the walls or began covering them with sandbags so that they could store them safely away from the threat of German bombs. I try to imagine the moment of hesitation and internal dialogue that might have taken place – perhaps asking themselves whether or not they were over-reacting? Everything they had spent their lives protecting, interpreting, and making public – now had to be removed and hidden from the public eye. Of course, in hindsight, this was absolutely necessary in order to protect the cultural property for the long-term. The world as they had understood up until that moment had ceased to be, and a new situation was upon them. They had to look past the boxed Mona Lisa and the sandbagged David into the future and envision a time when those artifacts would once again be placed openly and lovingly in public view. What a moment of sadness and at the same time a moment of powerful, proactive, power and urgency.
Although not as physically devastating as war, I believe we are called on now to make similar proactive and emotionally counter-intuitive operational choices.
The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic lockdowns have been devastating to cultural institutions in both the human cost as well as to organizational operations. This part of pandemic is now quickly becoming history, but what we are in at the present and what is on the horizon seems even more daunting to me. Why?
As I write this, it is April 2021. Mass vaccinations are taking place, things are slowly opening back up, and there is noticeably more activity on the streets and sidewalks of our towns. So why the concern? I believe that at this moment we are in the eye of the economic storm that is the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial economic shock of the storm included the physical death and destruction to so many lives, the fear and dread of our new day-to-day realities, and how they might unfold – and for cultural institutions, the stark realization that our survival depended on a new and as yet unwritten blueprint for how to operate. At this pivotal April 2021 inflection point, we are starting to see the sunshine, and that sense of hope might have us convinced that the storm has now passed by us completely. Most cultural sites rely on various types of earned revenue to survive, even those with sizable endowments. As someone who runs a large living-history site, I think 2021 will include a different set of prevailing winds from the COVID-19 storm. “Open up!” is the increasingly vocal call heard from many sides. Cultural institutions are being thrown in to this loud arena – struggling to regain their footing and find balance. Persistent public calls to get “back to normal” belie the economic realities of budgets, staffing, attendance, funding, and safety of staff. Simply returning to normal is a losing proposition for many.
The best-kept secret is that some cultural institutions, because of unsustainable pre-COVID operations, may in fact be in a better position temporarily closed and using this to their advantage for the longer haul – rethinking an operations model that pays a living wage, is empathetic to staff, anti-racist, and includes shared collaborative leadership. Staying closed may not be popular, but do organizations really want to jump back into their outmoded top-down, financial & attendance driven models of the before-time. This is a difficult opinion to voice. In fact, I haven’t seen much in the public press about this perspective. We are at a crucial moment in our social and economic progress. We either see the present moment as the end of the storm – or we see it, as I do, as merely the eye of the hurricane, and prepare for the reverse winds. Now is not the time to let our guard down, take down the plywood coverings protecting the windows, and the sandbags protecting the cultural property. Now is the time to check to make sure those protections are still useful. We should reflect upon our operations and policies looking toward new organizational forms and behaviors.
I realize that my perspective does not reflect the current “back to normal” zeitgeist. My feeling is, simply put – if we want our organizations to be around 10 years from now, serving our communities & staff in significant ways, and providing opportunities for an ever-expanding constituency, then we need to pause.
Think about this moment. With as much care as we gave the secret removal of the Winged Victory of Samothrace from the grand stair hall of the Louvre, plan for when the other wall of the storm arrives and re-envision a response that speaks to our higher selves.