The last trip I took before the pandemic was to Fukuoka, Japan. It was mid-January 2020, and the prime of strawberry season in this prefecture known for its Amaou variety–the “king” of Japanese strawberries–which often sells for more than $10 per berry. I visited the Fukuoka Art Museum, and loved seeing Yayoi Kusama’s giant yellow pumpkin sculpture outside the front doors. Discoveries like this are among the best things about travel.
I had no idea at the time it would be my last trip for quite a while.
I’ve been fortunate to see much of the world–six continents–including beautiful places like South Africa’s Western Cape and Chile’s Patagonia. I’ve snowmobiled past arctic glaciers in Svalbard, and snorkled in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
And although for the past two and a half years I haven’t traveled far, in some ways I’ve journeyed further and more frequently than I ever have before.
Sure, I did most of this from my laptop, without leaving home. There were no spectacular natural landscapes, but I met fascinating people, asked questions, and spent time doing things virtually that I may never have made the time for or had the opportunity to do in person. At least not as often or as easily.
I watched art conservators restore Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” live from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum; learned to make sweet corn brioche alongside third generation Parisian baker Apollonia Poilâne; listened to a riveting New York Public Library conversation with Caste author Isabel Wilkerson; joined the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s virtual marathon reading of Moby Dick for an afternoon; and spent an hour with Atlanta’s Museum of Design and a young typographer, Tré Seals, who creates new typefaces based on those used in historical protest movements. That’s just a small sample.
Since March of 2020, I have attended and participated in nearly 100 virtual programs.
Without getting on a plane, or maybe because of it, I meaningfully connected with others dozens of times thanks to the creativity and resourcefulness of institutions that, even with their physical doors closed, continued to advance their organizations’ missions by bringing communities together and convening thinkers, artists, scientists, and writers to share their work and ideas. Things they love and care about deeply. They deserve our thanks, and more importantly our continued support.
While COVID dominated the news, and essential workers risked their own lives to feed and take care of the rest of us, in the pandemic’s uncertain early months, museums began experimenting–doing whatever they could to stay connected to their communities. They set up Zoom events, livestreamed on Instagram and YouTube, dug into their digital archives, and created a new ecosystem of virtual communities and conversations that reached everyone from parents with young children to isolated older adults. It no longer mattered if you were down the block or across the country, or if you lived in a city or somewhere more remote. Anyone with a device and a connection could join. And tens of millions did.
In reimagining what it means to be a source of understanding, comfort, and inspiration for all of us (who sometimes take them for granted), we came to appreciate the value of museums even more. They were beacons in an uncertain landscape of sickness and fear. Among our most resilient and trusted institutions, museums opened their digital doors and welcomed us in ways that felt relevant and meaningful, even as they and their own teams struggled with tremendous losses and stress, along with the same personal challenges that the rest of us were managing.
Fortunately, almost all of them have since reopened. But museums, libraries, and cultural organizations have forever altered themselves and us. They’ve shown us–and reminded themselves– that they have much more to offer beyond their physical buildings and collections.
Of course those buildings and the treasures inside them can’t be replicated digitally. But the pandemic taught us that they don’t need to be. While standing in front of Rembrandt’s painting in the Rijksmuseum will never be the same as looking at it on a screen, giving mics and video cameras to scaffold-climbing conservators live-streaming their work from the shuttered museum floor is also something that can’t be replicated. They are different but equally meaningful experiences that both complement one another and stand on their own merits.
Museums and cultural institutions have done incredible things over the past two and a half years, and we need them now more than ever. They have also opened up possibilities that even they may not have previously imagined.
But now comes the tricky part: How to keep doing what they do well in person, without losing what they’ve accomplished and the people they have reached digitally. Maybe just as importantly, how to do it efficiently and sustainably.
As challenging as it was to stand up a full slate of virtual programs while doors were closed, the post-reopening balance of in-person and digital programs is proving to be an even bigger challenge, but one with solutions that have the potential to transform institutions and impact even more of their supporters. Addressing early museum closures in an interview with The Art Newspaper in 2020, Juan Ignacio Vidarte, Director of the Guggenheim Bilbao, noted that “[digital] was the only way we have been able to [be in] contact with our audiences and with the world. It's been…very effective and certainly it's one of those windows or doors that once open you cannot close.”
While some may have thought that these virtual programs would disappear once museums reopened, it’s clear that audiences expect them to continue. There are a variety of forces driving this demand, including changed work and commuting patterns, accessibility for segments of the population who can’t easily visit museums, and significant increases in the amount of digital content that all of us are consuming. These trends will only continue to grow.
Museums want them to continue, too. These rich and engaging programs have the capacity to reach and bring meaning to anyone, anywhere, at scale, as well as the potential to help every institution become more sustainable.
That’s why I’m so excited about what we’re doing at Gather. Our software is empowering our museum and lifelong learning partners as they reimagine how they can serve their communities near and far and tackle these challenges head on. There is nothing more motivating than helping our most valued and trusted institutions keep as many of their doors open as possible so they can share what they do best with everyone who wants to go through them.
If you love and value museums, please continue to support them, especially those in your community. If you work in a museum or related institution and are also motivated by meeting these challenges and fulfilling these opportunities, I’d love to hear your thoughts and share with you what we’ve been building.
-Rob Urstein, Co-Founder, Gather