Arts and Humanities in the Times of the Corona Crisis The Role of Cultural Institutions

By Tooka Taheri

The museum, as an architectural typology, has its roots in the art collection which was typical of Renaissance Italy and its fascination with the past and products of antiquity. [1] However, it can be argued that its function as a cultural institution and a public service only began during the Enlightenment era. Prior to the 18th century, such collections were private and exclusive. Their aim was primarily due to their aesthetic value; for the pleasure and entertainment of the aristocracy and the wealthy. [2] In accordance with their enlightenment ideology, these private collections were opened to serve the general public. Thus, the museum was born: a building, renamed after the Greek ‘mouseion’ -μουσείο- , in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited. A prominent and early example is when Sir Hans Sloane donated his collection to the British government in 1753, with the note that it should be exhibited to all the people of Britain. This resulted in the construction of the British Museum, open and free to all.

This change of ownership, from private collections to public, had consequences, resulting in the typology becoming a cornerstone of public and civic life. Since its conception, the significance of the museum has only increased. Many of them are compelling works of architecture, designed by the world’s most renowned architects and designers. H. P. Berlage’s Kuntsmuseum in The Hague and Zaha Hadid’s The Maxxi National Museum in Rome are just a few notable examples. This both reflects and expands upon the institute’s credibility and prominence within the city and society. Furthermore, the museum has the power to influence and regenerate the urban fabric, as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Tate Modern in London have done. Perhaps even more crucially, the museum is the conductor and curator of the individual’s particular experience of art in its many forms. This is supported by Anne de Haij, strategic advisor at Kunstmuseum The Hague, who mentioned the value a museum can have for people and for a community. She considers the cultural institutions as ‘vital for the mental and emotional health of our society.’ [3]

This significant position then comes to the fore at a time of the global pandemic. A situation which has had widespread drastic effects. However, at a time of great anxiety and difficulty, museums were forced to close their doors to the public. While a necessary move to protect the health of the population, it offers a sensible opportunity to ponder on the response of this cultural institution during this trying time as well as its role in society.

While the museum was physically absent from public and individual life, much like many other forms of interaction during the coronacrisis, there was a very strong digital presence. Online exhibitions, virtual tours, and a stronger presence on social media platforms became the new norm, practiced by many. From the National Theatre to the Royal Opera House, there are many institutes that have contributed their content online free of charge. [4]

The artist Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition ‘In Real Life’ at Tate Modern is one instance among many of the immersive and collective experience which would not have been possible in a digital format.

This trajectory towards digital means, which has been hastened due to the current crisis, is by no means a novel initiative. As far back as 2005 the British Museum boasted of its partnership with Google, which brought forth the possibility to view 5000 if its objects online. [5] It cannot be denied that digital content has the potential to reach an audience that far exceeds the boundaries of any physical building. The director of the British Museum at the time exclaimed how ‘that Enlightenment fantasy, about 25 years ago became an internet possibility, and today, thanks to the Google Cultural Institute, it is a practical reality.’ [6] There are numerous benefits in having this digital platform. Its availability and accessibility fulfill some of the institute’s roles; both in terms of education and research as well as merely entertainment and curiosity. In this way it does perform the Enlightenment’s aspiration to bring art and education to the general public which is at the root of the museum’s conception.

It would perhaps be apt to ponder on whether this move towards online platforms has rendered the cultural institute’s physical entity as superfluous. Yet, in certain places museums are slowly opening their doors, mindful of protective measures to ensure the health of their staff and visitors. It is again possible to look around The Kunstmuseum, and The National Gallery in London will showcase its collection to the public once more. It would be mistake to portray their role as merely a tool for educational purposes. Museums are also about the experience of art, within the space, at a given time. The immersive quality of certain exhibits is intertwined with the experience of the space. To reiterate Robert Oosterhuis, research coordinator at the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science: these virtual and digital contents are no substitute to art and the experience it provides up close.[7]

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an increase in this interaction between individuals and the museum’s online content. Traffic on the British Museum’s website is now three times higher than before the crisis.[8] However, this does not translate to a replacement or substitution of the museum experience. It rather addresses a more urgent and humane need within society during the current crisis. A study of the cultural field in Turkey during the pandemic accentuates how this online presence of cultural institutions ‘have offered people the sense of hope and unity they need’. [9] The document affirms the role that culture and arts have in dealing with the difficulties of the global crisis and refers to them as ‘one of the great uniting and healing powers for the public.’

Therefore, it can be said that the role of the museum as an institute is manifold and applies at various scales. From education, research, and entertainment on an individual level to the scale of the community and the city as a whole. While digital and online content are of value, and have offered a significant and necessary opportunity during the coronavirus crisis, it only provides a partial fulfillment of a museum’s role in society at best. It is not a replacement for the experience of the arts.


[1] Pevsner, Nikolaus. (1976) A History of Building Types. London: Thames and Hudson

[2] Newhouse, Victoria. (1998) Towards a New Museum.  The University of Michigan: Monacelli Press.

[3] Interview with Anne de Haij



[6] Ibid.

[7]Interview with Robert Oosterhuis


[9]The Uniting Power of Art and Needs of the Cultural Field During the Pandemic

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