Vacant streetscapes, public gathering places with closed doors, real time images reflective of an Edward Hopper world: these are the shared signs of human experience across the globe these past few weeks. As we increasingly retreat to our homes to work, learn, play and live remotely, we look to our screens and devices for information, distraction and comfort. In the absence of in-person human connection, technology platforms and these devices have become critical tools for keeping us together. We are a global society whose natural tendency (for the majority) is to seek cultural and social connectivity, as opposed to practicing social distancing.
Cultural entities have shut their doors and canceled programs, events and public gatherings. This leaves a gap in our physical world, and we don’t know how long it will last. However, virtual tours, articles, blog posts, videos and impromptu concerts on living room couches have proliferated our screen time and news feeds. In the first weeks of closures, proactive curators at smaller museums toured vacant galleries with the help of a personal hand-held device. News outlets from the New York Times to online travel sites have listed virtual museum tours for those cooped up at home.
Cultural institutions such as museums hold greater public trust than many other organizations. They endorse verified information, relay facts and inspire their audiences. In this unprecedented moment, these spaces of public trust are supporting their audiences in creative and welcoming ways, proving that they are not a luxury: they are, in fact, essential to social connectivity and respite in times of crisis.
Society needs this. While visitors are temporarily barred from seeing works of art or hearing inspiring rhymes in person, they now have the ability to move beyond the physical space where objects are displayed or performances take place. Thanks to virtual access, visitors can disassemble physical barriers to culture – a new way of breaking the fourth wall. This online content is lending access to those who previously would not have visited a museum. Now, these new approaches are providing once non-visitors with educational opportunities for their families or just feeding untapped curiosity. In a way, this provides a level of accessibility to content that has not been seen or noticed until now.
While this shift to online content has created more equitable access to cultural institutions than ever before, homes and individuals lacking wifi or personal devices proves a deeper inequity still to be solved. In the new era of "free" culture, we now need to resolve this "last mile" conundrum for those who might need and benefit. How can we guide resources for underserved populations to ensure that they are not left behind?
Humans gather. Humans share. Humans create, collaborate and celebrate. We have a need for one another, and we have a need for the creative products we craft, whether we are the maker or the audience. The arts in all their forms nourish us. As humans, we have a deeply ingrained need, now more than ever, to preserve our cultural and historical equity. We also benefit from pausing, if only for a minute, to reflect with nostalgia on works of art, music or dance that help us to recall better times. In doing so, we can look with positivity and hope to the future. We can spark joy and find the mental fortitude needed to face the unknowns ahead.
Will these temporary measures of sharing and accessibility endure once the world returns to some semblance of a routine? What will the short- and long-term impacts be? It’s early. We are all still in a tactical phase, working through the next few days and weeks. We know this crisis will trigger major financial challenges for institutions, their staff and their public. Inevitably protocols will change, the use of interactives may change, and even visitor flow or capacity may be altered.
What we can recognize from the activity in the last weeks is that these places are necessary. The activities inside of them are necessary. The creative spirit and display is necessary, crucial even, to our mental and social health and everyday society. For proof, look to any spontaneous balcony concert or to the hits on museums’ online tours. We may be "place less" right now, but we want to celebrate the many amazing virtual events and places our cultural institutions have created.
Let’s keep connected with and through culture, and by extension, with each other.