Research on Museums and Collections in the Pandemic

A central aim of the Pandemic and Beyond project is to connect researchers working on similar Covid-19 research problems so that projects can share knowledge, data and findings. Our first Knowledge Exchange Workshops were key to achieving this, bringing team members from each research cluster together to present their work and to discuss the connections between projects. In this blog post, Mark Liebenrood, researcher on the ‘Museums in the Pandemic: risk, closure, and resilience’ project, reflects on the group of projects focused on the impact of Covid-19 on Museums and the work they are doing to ensure resilience in the heritage sector going forwards.

Like other institutions, museums have been under considerable pressure in the pandemic. They have been forced to close and some have already suffered as a consequence, with large scale redundancies making national news headlines. But many museums have acted as a resource for the public despite being closed. Some collections have been available online, and museums have also created online exhibitions and other activities as a substitute for in-person visits.

Given their value to society, it’s not surprising that museums should be prominent amongst a range of research being carried out under the UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council rapid response scheme, which includes a variety of projects based at universities across the UK. Two of those projects are examining the use of online collections from different angles. At St Andrews, a team is investigating the use of online collections in university teaching, in collaboration with UMIS (University Museums in Scotland). With the aim of building on existing practice, the project will use a series of case studies to examine the change to collection-based teaching during the pandemic across a range of museum sizes, university subjects, and teaching methods.

Another collection–oriented project, also with a Scottish focus, is ‘Digital footprints and search pathways’. This seeks to understand how the national collections have been used online over the course of a year, with a view to improving access to online collections in the future. The project is analysing changes in access, the relative popularity of collections and objects, and which platforms were used – whether institutions’ own websites or third-party platforms such as YouTube. It aims to identify potential improvements to digital platforms partly by using patterns of search behaviour to inform the ways in which collections might be linked, using an approach that combines search terms with the ways in which objects are described in online databases.

Beyond national and university museums, the pandemic has already prompted many to enhance their online offerings. This is likely to have been, in part, an attempt to mitigate the impact of closure by maintaining a connection with their audiences. This extension of online activity has included fundraising. Notwithstanding the many strands of support on offer from the government, museums have also used online crowdfunding platforms in attempts to remain financially viable. But although those two phenomena give some indication of the ways in which museums have responded in the last year or so, the story for each museum will inevitably be more complex.

To try to understand more fully how museums have responded to the pandemic and what the impact has been, two other research projects are underway. One, ‘Museums, Crisis and Covid19’ is based at Ulster University. Focussed on the sector in Northern Ireland, the project aims to understand how museums have contributed to community resilience and wellbeing during this period, and how that might continue. The researchers have noted the diverse responses in terms of digital offerings, but also understand that where museums have not expanded their activities online it may mean that they were busy with other things. The project examines the adaptation of museum practices to new audience needs, and considers questions of diversity, digital poverty, and the likelihood that some groups may continue to be cautious as lockdown eases – potentially remaining isolated as a result. The research team are in discussion with sector partners about which research methods might be most appropriate, and have already conducted fifteen interviews with museum professionals. Some of those interviews have resulted in blog posts on the project’s website.

Another project based at Birkbeck, University of London, is also interviewing museum professionals to understand the impact of the pandemic, but takes a new approach to data collection, both to inform the interview process and provide a big picture view of the whole UK sector during this time. ‘Museums in the Pandemic: risk, closure, and resilience’  draws upon data collected by the same research team in the Mapping Museums database to support a big data collection exercise across the more than 3,300 museums currently in existence in the UK. Text from museum websites and social media channels will be collected regularly and systematically analysed for indications of changing responses to the pandemic. Through this data analysis the project aims to identify museums at risk of closure, to discern indicators of resilience, and to provide timely information about the sector and how its profile is changing during the pandemic.

These are not the only projects to be examining museums within the rapid response research programme. ‘Making it FAIR: understanding the lockdown ‘digital divide’ and the implications for the development of UK digital infrastructures’, based at York University, is working with eight small museums to support development of their digital offerings to maintain current audiences and reach new ones. Another project based in Sheffield examines how the city’s cultural activities have been affected, including institutions, audiences and freelancers. And ‘COVID-19: Widening access to arts and culture through video streaming’, based at the University of Kent, looks at the use of video streaming by cultural organisations, including museums.

Some of these projects have only recently commenced, but the range of research underway will lead to a broader and deeper understanding of how the museum sector has responded to the pandemic, the challenges it has faced as a result, and how it might develop in the future based on some of the knowledge gained in this undoubtedly difficult period.

Mark Liebenrood is a PhD researcher on the ‘Museums in the Pandemic: risk, closure, and resilience’ project funded by AHRC. You can read about AHRC Covid-19 projects focused on museums, arts and culture here.

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