I’m writing this on one of the most beautiful days of 2020 so far – it’s officially the beginning of summer, the sun is shining and people are out cutting their grass. It’s one of the weird days of the lockdown where, for an hour or two, you could almost forget what’s going on in the world. Most days we don’t quite have that luxury. For many of us, the disruption to our day-to-day lives has been catastrophic.
Things like ‘Memories’ on social media sites don’t help. Take this time last year, for example. I was living abroad but making plans to come home to Dublin and start the Culture and Heritage Studies course in the National Print Museum. My plan was to get back to tour guiding and get fully immersed in to the nitty gritty of working in the heritage industry. You could probably guess that things didn’t exactly go to plan. My class were four days in to work placements when the lockdown started. It has been 58 days since any of us were on site in the Print Museum, and realistically it’ll be at least another 60 or so before we’re allowed back.
To be truthful, there have been many days where I’ve felt massively disconnected from the course and from my original aims. Frankly with all that’s happened and that’s happening, not being able to give my tours and engage with visitors seems a kind of trivial problem. More often to the forefront of my mind is ‘what happens next?’. There have been many worried, late-night conversations with friends and colleagues about what the industry will look like when quarantine is lifted; ‘what will our job prospects look like?’, ‘how will museums and heritage sites survive the crunch?’ Sometimes, when things are particularly bad I find myself asking ‘what’s the point?’.
(Okay so if you’re still with me at this point, I can promise you this is building to something!).
So, while I’d been having a mope about how my glittering career was snatched from me before it even began, something pretty amazing was happening. Almost as soon as heritage sites around the world started to close their doors, virtual tours began to appear online. Free audio, video and digital content; unlimited 24/7 access to some of the most important cultural institutions around the globe. Within a week #MuseumfromHome was trending on Twitter and Instagram; the Louvre, MoMA, Rijksmuseum (among literally thousands of others) were promoting their content across social media. Smaller sites, like our own National Print Museum, had a digital collection put together to provide a virtual experience for would-be visitors online. The headline ‘Culture in Quarantine’ was splashed across the BBC and the idea gained some serious momentum.
The National Museum of Ireland seemed to go one further, and presented a special online exhibition ‘Reflections on Resilience’ – a celebration of human ingenuity and tenacity in the face of great odds.
So, why am I pointing this out? Well because if I’m honest, the #MuseumfromHome movement has been a bit of a turning point for me, and I doubt that I’m alone in that. It’s not about the quality of the content that’s been produced (although it has been amazing) – it’s about how eager people have been to engage with it. We’re not the only group tweeting and blogging about our (virtual) class trips; the input from both personal AND institutional accounts online has been staggering. People and organisations are reaching out to each other through the hashtag, suggesting tours, discussing their favourite exhibition pieces and discussing the places they want to visit when this all over. Cultural sites across the world are supporting and promoting each other, retweeting and advertising other museums for the benefit of the virtual visitors. In a time when people at home could do ANYTHING they wanted on the internet, what they want to do is discuss art, culture and heritage.
‘Reflection on Resilience’ opens with a bit of a blurb –
‘These objects tell their own stories of resilience, endurance and hope, and we hope they provide a moment for reflection in these challenging times.’
These ARE challenging times, for all of us. There are more challenging times ahead, and beyond that too. For those of us who are involved in the heritage industry, there is an uncertainty on how things will pan out. But… being involved with #MuseumfromHome for the Print Museum and experiencing ‘Reflection on Resilience’ has reminded me of three very important things;
Firstly – struggle and hardship have been a constant in history. So too has the strength of the human spirit.
Secondly – as long as there are people who want to immerse themselves in culture, as long as there are people who make lists of sites they want to visit when they can, as long as there are people who take virtual tours and support heritage sites and buy things they don’t need from a gift shop in a museum on the other side of the world…I think we’ll be just fine.
Thirdly, and most importantly (in my opinion anyway) – I love what I do, and I have no regrets.