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July 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1408

Museums for troubled times

Slowly the world’s museums are beginning to unlock their doors. The pattern of reopening is largely following the progress of the pandemic, with those in countries that were struck first or that escaped comparatively lightly leading the way: the Uffizi reopened on 3rd June, three days before the Prado; by then most museums in Germany had been open for a month. The Louvre will follow suit on 6th July. Museums in countries that were badly hit as the virus spread beyond the initial outbreaks are largely still closed and few have given a firm date for opening: at the time of writing, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has said only that it hopes to reopen in mid- to late August, a date proposed also by some national museums in the United Kingdom, including Tate. Even so, a few of those museums that have not yet announced when they will reopen have issued some welcome updates about their programmes: all readers of this Magazine will have been cheered by the news that the exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death at the National Gallery, London, which closed only three days into its run, has been extended to continue after the gallery’s reopening – some compensation for the many exhibitions that have been cancelled.(1)

No museum will open exactly as it was before lockdown and none will admit anything like the visitor numbers they expected before the pandemic. At the Prado, for example, entry is by timed ticket, reducing admissions from the 8,000–9,000 a day it used to receive to 1,800. Visitors have to undergo temperature checks, wear masks and observe social distancing, but most significantly only a fifth of the museum’s collection will be on display until at least the autumn (a reduction reflected in a halving of the price of admission). The Prado estimates that the lockdown has already cost it some €7 million, around a seventh of its annual operating budget. All museums will suffer, small ones without public funding worse than large national institutions, but at least the nature of the way they physically engage with their public means that they are better positioned to make a recovery than performing arts organisations, for whom social distancing measures are a seemingly insuperable barrier to economic viability.

During closure the focus of most museums has been on digital engagement with their public, yet admirably many have continued to fulfil one of their core responsibilities, collecting, by the creation of programmes to document the impact of the pandemic. Some are primarily based online – in Washington, for example, the ‘Moments of Resilience’ initiative launched by the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in May is collecting digital records of local people’s experience of the pandemic – but many museums are acquiring physical objects; among the promised gifts to the Cologne City Museum are two of the facemasks worn at the last meeting of the city council before the lockdown began. In London alone, collecting programmes relating to the pandemic have been set up by the Museum of London (‘Collecting Covid’), the Science Museum and the British Film Institute. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a wellestablished approach to what it calls ‘rapid response collecting’, which has a dedicated gallery. During the museum’s closure, its curators have created a very enjoyable online account of the material legacy of covid-19 in ‘Pandemic Objects’, a compilation of reflections on ‘objects that have taken on new meaning and purpose during the coronavirus outbreak’.(2)

The pandemic has coincided with a global movement that offers another field for acquisitions. One of the most memorable events in the worldwide anti-racism protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on 25th May occurred in Bristol on 7th June, when a late-nineteenth-century statue of Edward Colston (1636–1721) was thrown into Bristol harbour because of his involvement with the slave trade. This relit a debate about the fate of public monuments to figures implicated in slavery and other racist aspects of Britain’s history. After the statue had been retrieved, the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, announced that it would go on show in the city’s M Shed museum, together with placards made by protestors.

Although the removal to a museum of a public work of art that is deemed unacceptable now seems the obvious and civilised solution to the dilemma created by statues like that to Colston (which, with its plinth, is Grade II listed),(3) it took a long time for the principle to be established. Antiquarian endeavour to preserve relics of a rejected past often aroused suspicion: in Britain, scholarly interest in the remains of the pre-Reformation period drew accusations of crypto-Catholicism well into the eighteenth century. The idea that material relics could be politically decontaminated by being placed in a museum probably goes back to post- Revolutionary Paris and the establishment of the Musée Central des Arts in the Louvre and the conversion of the convent of the Petits Augustins into the Musée des Monuments Français. By the twentieth century, even countries that sought systematically to remove monuments to their past usually stopped short of their destruction: having been removed in 1948, the statue of Queen Victoria that had stood outside Leinster House in Dublin eventually found a new home in Sydney, and when it was decided in 1969 to remove colonial-era statues from Calcutta they were shunted off to the grounds of the former Governor’s residence in Barrackpore. Similarly many of the statues of Communist leaders dismantled in Hungary after 1989 were moved to the new Memento Park in Budapest, opened in 1993.

In Britain there are plenty of precedents for museums taking responsibility for interpreting contentious aspects of its past. Public discussion of the country’s involvement in the slave trade has tended to emphasise the leading role played by Britain in abolishing the slave trade rather than the previous two centuries of profiting from it, but slavery is not a subject of national amnesia to the complete extent that some people have asserted. The national programme of events in 2007 to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of abolition had an important legacy in the creation of the International Slavery Museum, which is part of National Museums Liverpool. It is of course currently closed. If, as seems likely, Colston’s monument ends up permanently in a public collection in Bristol, it will reinforce the importance of museums as places in which troubling issues of history and identity can be confronted and debated – which is one reason why they have been so much missed.

1. The exhibition was reviewed by Giorgio Tagliaferro in the June issue (pp.526–29).

2., accessed 17th June 2020.

3. The statue, which is by the Irish-born sculptor John Cassidy (1860–1939), was erected in 1895. It was listed in 1977, on the grounds both of aesthetic merit and the historical interest of its subject. In 2007 the listing description was revised by English Heritage to acknowledge the part Colston played in the slave trade.