Addressing Social Injustices: The Future of Museums Post-Pandemic

The future of museums relies on an examination of what museums mean to their audiences during this period of addressing social unrest and a global pandemic.

Jun 3, 2021By Selena McGonnell, MSc Museum Studies, BS History
future of museums post pandemic
The Bridesmaid by John Millais, 1851, updated 2020, via the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; with Photo of Robert Milligan in front of the Museum of London Docklands, via Museum of London


The museum and heritage sectors have been through the wringer the past couple of years, addressing racism, colonialism, and the spread of Covid-19. How museums address our new reality will affect their very future. Read on for a breakdown of the effects of the pandemic, decolonization efforts, and Black Lives Matter protests and how they all will affect the future of museums.


The Future Of Museums: Uncertainty In The Covid-19 Era

The Bridesmaid by John Millais, 1851, updated 2020, via the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


In 2020, the world experienced  a global health crisis. It affected all industries, but one of the hardest hit was the heritage sector. In a joint report by UNESCO and ICOM, the two groups revealed that around 95% of museums closed their doors at the beginning of the pandemic, with many still closed almost a year later. 


Museums are reporting all-time low visitor rates. To counteract this, they have increased their online presence. With the innovative use of social media, live-streaming events, and an increase in online programs, museums are reaching beyond their walls to stay relevant to their visitors. 


Museums are collaborating with digital platforms to create virtual tours of museums as a safe alternative to going in-person. They also utilize apps and games like TikTok, Animal Crossing, and web videos to share their collections and content.


Image of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing on The Met Virtual Tool, 2020, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


With pandemic guidelines recommending shorter time spent in indoor public spaces, we continue to see the implementation of ticket-timed entry into museums, special hours for vulnerable groups, and new visitor safety protocols. The future of museums and their visitors will require innovative solutions to make sure visitors and staff are comfortable and safe when they return to museums.


The future of museums and their staff are vulnerable. The overwhelming revenue loss from visitors, exhibitions, programs, and events has led museums to make tough decisions. They have had to sell artworks, lay off or furlough staff, and cut entire departments. Smaller museums fighting for survival have had to make ends meet through emergency funds and grants, or in the case of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, close indefinitely. 


Photo of the Florence Nightingale Museum, via the Joy of Museums


Art museums in the United States have been given the green light by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) to sell pieces from their collections to help pay for operating costs. The AAMD loosened its deaccession guidelines at the beginning of the pandemic. The policies normally have to be strict to keep museums from selling off items in times of financial crisis, but for many museums right now, it is a necessity to stay afloat.


The Brooklyn Museum of Art has sold twelve works of art at Christie’s to cover operating costs. Additionally, the sale of a Jackson Pollock at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, generated twelve million dollars. Although this period will most likely not set a precedent for the future of museums accessioning and deaccessioning of artwork during a crisis, it has allowed museums to review and diversify their collections.


The Push For Anti-Colonial Rhetoric And Decolonization

Red Composition by Jackson Pollock, 1946, via the Everson Museum, Syracuse; with Lucretia by Lucas Cranach I, 1525-1537, via Christie’s, New York


Many of the world’s oldest museums have a legacy dating back to the age of empires, housing and displaying objects taken by force or stolen from colonized countries. Activists and museum professionals have continuously called for museums to be more transparent about their imperialist past by calling for decolonization efforts, such as contextualizing their collections with contentious histories. The German Association of Museums published a set of guidelines on how museums can best achieve this: adding multiple-narrative perspectives to labels, collaborating with descendants of the origin community, provenance research, and the deaccession and restitution of objects of colonial context.


Last summer, the British Museum launched the “Collecting and Empire Trail,” which provided additional context to fifteen objects in the collection by including their provenance history and explaining how they ended up in the museum. The trail is well-regarded but criticized for the Eurocentric neutral and abstract language and for excluding certain objects that have been called to be returned to their country of origin, like the Benin Bronzes and Parthenon Marbles.


Parthenon Marbles, by Phidias, 5th Century BCE; with Benin Bronze Plaques, 16-17th Century, via the British Museum, London


Museums are notorious for dragging their feet when it comes to decolonization and restitution and have only recently begun the process. In 2017, the French government published the Sarr-Savoy Report, proposing the return of artifacts taken from African countries during imperialist rule. It has been three years with little progress, with France voting in October 2020 to return 27 artifacts to Benin and Senegal. Other museums are also taking steps to return and deaccession objects taken from their former colonies. 


Unfortunately, restitution in some countries cannot happen without government support. In the case of the UK, they would have to change the law, which states that UK museums cannot remove objects from their collection that are over 200 years old.


The same goes for statues of contentious colonial and racist figures, a few of which have toppled to the ground as part of the Black Lives Matter protests. The debate now is what to do with those figures and whether museums might be the best place for them. 


Felling of Edward Colston Statue by Black Lives Matter Protesters, 2020, via the Guardian


In the wake of the felling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, the archaeologist magazine Sapiens and the Society of Black Archaeologists hosted a panel of scholars and artists to address the question of controversial monuments. When questioned whether monuments belonged in museums, curator Tsione Wolde-Michael of the Smithsonian Museum of American History stated that taking in statues does not address the problem of systemic racism and white supremacy but could be possible in the right museum and with the right methods of display and interpretation.


Whether or not the final destination of a monument is in a museum, the future of museums relies on improving their methods of interpretation. By providing additional context to the history of racism and colonialism, museums can effectively be more transparent about how they benefited from such regimes; which is another step forward in the decolonization process.


In contrast, the Dutch government put into effect guidelines to restitute any colonial objects taken by violence or force from former Dutch colonies. In September 2020, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin returned human remains to the Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand. The museum has been a steadfast advocate of restitution because they see it as reconciliation to societies affected by colonialism. Thus, the future of museums’ plans for restitution rests with the changing of their policies, laws, and missions. 


In the meantime, museums are working towards anti-colonial practices in their spaces. This means sharing authority for the documentation and interpretation of the culture and history of those historically excluded. Establishing long-term collaborative partnerships with descendants of origin communities will mean that the future of museums will see progress in decolonization, addressing injustices of power structures, and providing an inclusive museum for all. 


Anti-Racism And The Future Of Museums

Photo of Robert Milligan in front of the Museum of London Docklands, via Museum of London


Following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and countless others at the hands of police last summer, the arts and heritage sectors were pushed to address systemic racism within their museums and galleries. When the protest for racial equity first started, museums showed their solidarity through social media posts and events. The arts community took part in Zoom lectures, artist talks, and press releases discussing anti-racism.


However, Black, Indigenous, and People of color (BIPOC) artists and museum practitioners remain underwhelmed by the show of support. Black curator and artist Kimberly Drew wrote an article for Vanity Fair, arguing that real change will happen when there are long-lasting structural changes: diverse hiring and executive leadership, as well as an overhaul of the workplace culture. The future of museums relies on structural, long-lasting change. 


Three museums have already begun. In June 2020, the Walker Centre for Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Chicago Museum of Art ended their contracts with their city’s police force, citing the need for reform and police demilitarization.


Many also see an increasing need for an overhaul of the workplace attitude towards racism, advocating for anti-racism and inclusion training. Change the Museum is an anonymous Instagram page for BIPOC museum practitioners to recount their experiences with racial microaggressions on a day-to-day basis. Numerous BIPOC museum professionals are speaking out about the treatment they have faced in the museum space. 


Most notable is Chaédria LaBouvier’s experience- the first female black curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She faced discrimination, hostility, and exclusion during her curation of the exhibition, Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story


Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768, via The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


In 2018, the Andrew Carnegie Mellon Foundation conducted a survey of ethnic and gender diversity in art museums across the United States. The survey found that there has been little improvement in adding representation of historically excluded people to museum roles. 20% of people of color occupy museum roles like that of curator or conservator and 12% in leadership roles.


The future of museums will see museum professionals addressing racism within their collections: there is a lack of BIPOC art subjects and artists in these spaces


In The Whole Picture by Alice Proctor, the author notes that there exist layers of erasure in the art historical narrative: 


“The lack of representation of people of color in European and North American art in the 18th and 19th centuries, and particularly the absence of enslaved and formerly enslaved, speaks to the process of racialized exclusion and oppression more broadly.”  


To add context to those pieces, museums can use multi-narrative perspectives to tell the whole story. This will effectively address the distorted view of colonialism, violence, and the effects on people of oppressed communities. The future of museum documentation is changing to add that context.


Portrait of an Unknown Man and His Servant by Bartolommeo Passertotti, 1579, via the Manchester Art Gallery


Museums are also deaccessioning art made by white artists in order to diversify their collection by adding art by people of color. In October 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art planned to sell three major works of art to fund its diversity initiatives. However, it was stopped at the last minute by the Association of Art Museum Directors because the sale did not address needs beyond current, pandemic-related financial challenges. 


In 2019, Plos One published a study after reviewing the collections of 18 major museums in the United States that showed that 85% of the artists were white and 87% were male.


Museums like the Smithsonian and the New York Historical Society are already collecting objects connected to the BLM movement: posters, oral recordings, and tear gas canisters, in order to memorialize our recent history. Thus, the future of museums will reflect the unfolding history of the pandemic, the decolonization movement, and the BLM movement. 


Further Reading:

  • The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums & why we need to talk about it by Alice Proctor
  • Culture is Bad for You: Inequality in the Cultural and Creative Industries by Dave O’Brien, Mark Taylor, and Orian Brook
  • The Birth of the Museum by Tony Bennett
Author Image

By Selena McGonnellMSc Museum Studies, BS HistorySelena is a contributing writer and museologist from the United States. She holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow, and a BS in History. She has a passion for museums and heritage with research interests in collections of colonial context, curatorial practices, art provenance, and British history.