Museums Beyond Covid

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

The sun was hot on my neck as I walked up the stone steps of the largest museum in America. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is on every natural curators museums to visit list, and I was full of youthful excitement!

Inside was cool, and I was met with a grand hall, with a beautiful taxidermy elephant in the centre. The space buzzes with the echoing chatter and the scuttling of excited little feet. I walk on to the stairs, past the large mass of people queuing for the lift, and head up the stairs, patiently waiting for people to pass, so I can meet my ancestors. Here in the Human Origins gallery, there are wonderful displays and interactives all about the evolution of our species. Children run from case to case. Prams block display panels. Interactives are bashed.

I move along to the mammal gallery, where it seems like twenty different schools have chosen to visit at the same time. The cases are two deep with visitors peering at mammals from continents away: children squashed at the front, adults squeezing and pushing to get a glimpse. Reminiscent of a Friday night at our student bar. The air is stale and dry. The noise of a thousand different conversations ring loud in my head. There’s a feeling of being moved along by an invisible force of hunger: not for food, but to ‘see’ the next thing.

Beautiful taxidermy work of lions attacking a buffalo. I patiently waited 15 minutes until the case was clear of visitors for this photo. Photo by Jan Freedman.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York was no different. It was a Monday and there must have been over 100 people in the entrance hall alone. The voices from all the people would have shook the room more than the Brachiosaurus on display if they were walking the Earth today.

I can say I visited the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It’s a great thing to say and it sounds pretty cool. But my experience in these museums was far from great. I couldn’t enjoy the displays. I couldn’t see the specimens. I couldn’t ready the labels. I would actually go far as saying the experiences were horrible – I wanted to get out as soon as I could.

With museums beginning to open after several months of safe lockdown as a result of Covid-19, we are beginning to reassess our spaces so that they are safe for visitors. Museums will be limiting visitors to galleries, possibly developing one way systems, requesting social distancing, and rethinking their manual interactives to follow government guidelines.

The museum beyond Covid-19 will be a very different place. It will be a very different experience.

Like most people reading this, I having visited many museums over the years. I have to say, the best experiences have been in those museums where there have not been hundreds of other visitors. The galleries were quiet, and had a calm atmosphere. I have been able to take my time and see what I want to see, instead of been pushed along with the flow of the masses.

The new way of visiting a museum will offer up a very different experience for visitors. There will be less people in galleries and less noise. This will create a different atmosphere for the visitors. Maybe a similar atmosphere to a few decades ago when museums weren’t so focused on visitor figures.

The natural history gallery at the Charleston Museum, North Carolina. It wasn’t heaving with visitors, and I could see people take their time look at the displays. Photo by Jan Freedman.

I feel that with less people in galleries, there will be less of a ‘need’ to rush around trying to see everything. Visitors will be able to enjoy and discover more about that specimen than before. They will be able to connect with that specimen in a new kind of way: a way they haven’t experienced before. And isn’t that what we want visitors to do through our displays: connect with our collections?

We all want visitor figures in our museums. It looks great to boast “We have 200,000 visitors a year.” I’ve heard it at conferences, where someone proudly says they have the highest visitors in the UK. But so what? Do each of those 200,000 individual visitors get as much as they could from their visit? Have we been sacrificing visitor experience just to get those big numbers?

2 thoughts on “Museums Beyond Covid

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