What are museums — and their directors — doing now?
As the world celebrates International Museums Day, we talk to four directors across the globe about loans and exhibitions, the future of blockbusters, donations, digital innovations, inclusivity, connectivity and ‘the duty to safeguard great art’
Director of the Hong Kong Museum of Art
‘As I speak, our museum is partially open. We closed in January, opened up for 10 days in March, then closed down again because of the second wave.
‘When we reopened for the second time, on the morning of 6 May, there was a queue outside: everyone seemed happy to have something to do apart from eating. When one man was asked why he had come, he said he wanted to see the largest painting that David Hockney has ever completed, Bigger Trees near Warter.
‘It’s on loan to us from the Tate, part of an exhibition of British landscapes. The show was installed last November and was supposed to be here for three months, but we can’t send it back right now, so it will now run till May. It’s a rare extended opportunity for Hong Kong people to see such works — and that’s a bright side.
‘Many of our visitors have been going online to look at art, of course, but what that gives them is a memory of a two-dimensional image.
‘The challenge for us will be to remind everyone that the true power of art consists in having contact with a space or an object or another human being, that the real experience is different from looking at a picture on Facebook. And that’s because you can immerse yourself in a painting on a wall in a way that is impossible to do with a picture on an iPhone.
‘Since we are among the first to reopen, I am sure that we will be sharing our insights’ — Maria Mok
‘As a museum director, one thing that I will take away from Coronavirus is a renewed sense of solidarity. People are reaching out to each other. In the run up to International Museums Day, I have been having all kinds of meetings with fellow museum directors in Europe and the Middle East and elsewhere.
‘Everyone seems eager to chat and exchange ideas. Since we are among the first to reopen I am sure that we will be sharing our insights — and our mistakes. This situation is not a competition, after all; we in the museum world are facing it together.’
Director of the National Gallery, London
‘This is a curious time for us, because we are so used to having visitors come in every day. But the circumstances are the same for just about every museum in the world. We are an online museum until we can reopen the doors on Trafalgar Square.
‘The only people going into the National Gallery are security and environmental technicians. We are monitoring the paintings remotely, and through twice-weekly visits by our head of conservation.
‘We can’t continue to restore pictures for now — you have to be in situ for that — but there is a lot of work that conservators can do without a retouching brush in hand. That includes updating archives, writing reports, preparing articles for publication or lectures. I am very keen that all that activity continues. We chose to keep everyone busy, and not to furlough any staff.
‘The example of the National Gallery during wartime — I am thinking of the Myra Hess [piano] concerts that took place during the Blitz and after — has been an inspiration for us. I have clearly seen the emotional attachment that people, including our own staff, have to the gallery.
‘What will be different? For one thing, fewer institutions will be doing big blockbuster shows’ — Gabriele Finaldi
‘There is a sense of a duty to safeguard great art: whether that art is kept in a slate quarry in North Wales, as during the war years, or in safe-keeping behind our own doors during this Covid-19 pandemic. Art has something to do with who we are as a people, the best of ourselves — and to be reminded of that is very important. Art also has a role in providing solace, in recalling better times and looking forward to a time when this will be over.
‘What will be different then? For one thing, fewer institutions will be doing big blockbuster shows. They are a valuable instrument for drawing new people in, showcasing new research, introducing new areas of art history. But traditionally, it is the local public that focuses on temporary shows, while the tourist audience homes in on the core collection.
‘I would find it a welcome outcome if that were to change — if our local audience in London and the UK came to re-appreciate the collection itself. Because right next to those temporary shows, we have a gallery of masterpieces that amount to a permanent blockbuster.’
Director of the Newark Museum of Art
‘We were just taken aback by the crisis, and in some ways have hardly had a chance to think. We closed on 16 March, hoping that we would reopen in April. That was later revised to 28 May — and now we have decided that we will not be back until the fall.
‘Meanwhile, we have rescheduled this year’s exhibitions for 2021 and even 2022. We had planned a retrospective of Ralph Steadman’s work — this is a political year, after all — but that’s postponed to next spring. We were also putting together an exhibition around Billie Holiday and other jazz greats who came from Newark or played here.
‘That’s moved to the summer of 2022, because we want to combine it with live, open-air music. The museum takes up four and a half acres right in the middle of town. That’s a lot of real estate, and we can’t just be here. We have to be of the community, a part of the city’s ecosystem.
‘Our museum encompasses a 19th-century home — Ballantine House — and the dimensions of those rooms are distinctly intimate. We are in conversations about how we implement the pretty serious guidelines from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control & Prevention], the local authorities, and the American Association of Museum Directors.
‘Timed viewings, inventive use of digital, tying in our under-leveraged sculpture garden — all those things may play a role. We need to think holistically and test them out. We have the same challenge with our planetarium, which is a theatre in the round. According to the present rules, we’ll have to leave two out of three seats empty.
‘I think we will weather this storm: we know from earlier crises that art somehow endures’ — Linda Harrison
‘One thing I know: the museum that opens in September or October will not be the one that closed in March. We must pivot, adjust to a new reality. If we thrive after this pandemic, it will be because we are relevant to the people we serve. I think we will weather this storm: we know from earlier crises that art somehow endures.
‘The crisis has been a slap in the face for the art community; it has woken us up to the idea that art cannot be for a small group of people. If there is one word that defines the future, it is “inclusive”. Once you have a home and food, and your family is safe, you look for what make life fulfilling — and art museums provide that. Yes, we can do that.’
Barbara B. Taylor Director of the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM)
‘St Louis is beginning to lift the stay-at-home orders, as of Monday 18 May, but the museum is not included in phase one. So we have a major exhibition — on Jean-François Millet and his influence on modern art — hanging in closed galleries right now. It’s a fantastic show with extraordinary loans from all over the world, so that is very frustrating, given all the work and scholarship that went into it.
‘We are working our way through many practical questions — for example, how handlers hang a painting or lift a sculpture while trying to observe the health regime. Gloves and masks are an obvious part of the answer. Our handlers are used to working in gloves, at least. In future we will be planning the movement of large and complex things even more carefully than we do already.
‘A few dozen pieces of ours are on loan all over the world right now. Most borrowers have asked us to extend, and we have, of course, said yes in every case — because we want to help our fellow institutions, and also because there’s not much we can do about it. After the pandemic, museums might have to be more fluid and flexible in regard to loans, whether it is lending out or borrowing in.
‘That will drive thinking about programs. We know it will be easier to get something here on a truck from Boston, say, than on a plane from London. And it may be that, in future, projects will run longer than the typical 12 weeks. The pace of exhibitions might become slower, with a greater emphasis on the treasures that are here in the collection.
‘The most wonderful thing has happened: a number of people, when renewing memberships, are adding an additional cheque’ — Brent Benjamin
‘SLAM is funded by property taxes, and that revenue is very stable. In this crisis, that’s a very helpful circumstance, but we will be tightening our belts all the same. And the most wonderful thing has happened: a number of people, when renewing memberships, are adding an additional cheque.
‘In the first month of closure, we had 85 people who put something extra in the envelope just because they care and want to help. I have to say that is so humbling and heart-warming. Just fantastic.’