The Impacts of COVID-19 on Museums: History
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COVID-19 has had a huge impact on both tourism and culture globally. The function of every kind of cultural activity was inhibited due to curfews in all public spaces, including museums, galleries, monuments, and archeological sites, which were forced to interrupt their operation due to the restrictions that were implemented for the protection of public health. In many cases, museums or archeological sites employed the use of digital systems and social media, always carefully abiding by all the security measures.

  • COVID-19
  • culture
  • museums

1. Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most substantial recent challenges faced by business and governments this century. With museums, cultural institutions, World Heritage Sites, and other historic monuments closed, communities were deprived of culture as well as significant revenues. At the height of the global lockdown, 90% of countries had closed their World Heritage properties [1]. Museums have been particularly affected by the pandemic; 90% closed their doors during the crisis, and as many as one in eight may never reopen. The cancellation of national and local cultural and religious events—such as festivals, rituals, and various forms of traditional practices—has had a direct impact on communities and their social fabric and cohesion [2].

2. The Impacts of COVID-19 on Museums

2.1. COVID-19 and Culture

According to Micheli [3], the health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic ‘paralyzed the modern and global national cultural industry’, thus showing that a possible permanent collapse of the cultural system can change social balances, revealing to us structural components from which the contemporary cultural domain suffers. Therefore, the effects are also evident in the culture network as it received such disturbances. Since March 2020, most states had taken drastic measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 resulting in museums and cultural venues being closed to the public.
UNESCO, ICOM, and NEMO have taken action and initiatives aiming to provide technical and financial assistance in the field of culture, during the pandemic and beyond, covering activities such as awareness campaigns, seminars, online meetings, and good practice guides. An example is Europa Nostra, which was created in the Digital Agora, a digital platform whose purpose is to share and promote good practices related to culture and cultural heritage actions worldwide, but in digital form. The above idea of Europa Nostra is that, through this ‘digital market’, citizens, institutions, organizations in the cultural sector, and people involved in culture are all encouraged to interact with each other and learn things from each other during this difficult time.
In addition, UNESCO, through the establishment of the Resil Art Campaign, has succeeded in supporting the people of culture, thus ensuring access to culture worldwide. It was also a platform for digital dialogue between artists and cultural professionals, focusing on the present and future of their artistic creation and cultural production [4]. In developing countries, for millions of people access to culture using digital media has remained unattainable, making it difficult to access collections and operate museums online. The effects of the crisis on cultural institutions as well as on museums require an approach that affirms the central role of culture as a means of revitalizing the economy and the cultural ecosystem to promote a better future for the next generations. The member states that participated in the research conducted by UNESCO applied statistical tools to strengthen the data collection that was conducted and to achieve the full integration of culture as a factor of economic and social transformation to ensure the sustainability of this sector. In particular, the effects of COVID-19 on various forms of culture focused on the following:
Libraries: According to the WIPO survey [5], the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant consequences for libraries and archives. The immediate effects of the restrictive measures, the lockdowns to safeguard public health, led public schools and academic libraries to temporarily close their doors. For example, the American Library Association and the International Federation of Library Associations claimed that full shutdowns occurred from mid-March 2020 to mid-October 2020 in almost all countries. Although most of these libraries have begun to reopen with health and safety protocols in place, the pandemic has reduced access to publications, leaving libraries, authors, and publishers struggling financially. Experts also concluded that COVID-19 has accelerated the process and investment to convert archives and libraries into their digital form. For example, e-lending of books has increased in Estonia, as well as e-audio books in Ireland. Many libraries also expanded digital offers and their collections, providing remote library services focusing on electronic lending models. In addition, they provided courses on copyright protection to facilitate the use of digital material by stakeholders. However, this was not supported in all libraries. According to the WIPO survey [5], in a sample of 212 academic libraries internationally, a large percentage (52.36%) had no concern regarding government policies to support libraries during the pandemic. In addition, COVID-19 led to understaffed libraries, unable to meet the new digital demands. The reduction of the general budget and public health limited the number of qualified employees available to provide new services.
Music sector: In addition, the music industry was greatly affected by the pandemic, especially in the context of the live music industry. According to the OECD report, while there were significant losses, this impact was mitigated because 50% of the industry’s revenue came from recorded music. The remaining 50% consisting of live events such as concerts, shows, and festivals was much more affected as live events were postponed or canceled.
The sector of live music has been affected by social distancing restrictions linked to the pandemic and limited financial capacity in many countries. Even as health measures varied due to different stages of confinement, music events suffered from low attendance due to travel and accommodation costs. Industry professionals have tried to respond to the crisis, leaving the traditional model of service delivery behind by turning to various alternative online solutions and digital tools changing the experience, demand, and consumption of customers.
Audiovisual arts: According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the culture and arts sector in the US, both for non-profit organizations (NGOs) and for individuals who work on them. The Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society estimated that the non-profit arts, entertainment, and leisure sector lost 36% of jobs in the pandemic crisis between February and December 2020.
The visual arts have been affected by the mixed effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in particular due to the closure of art galleries and museums. Since the sector relies heavily on large events, trade shows, and biases, the restrictions on movement and social gatherings brought about by the pandemic have had a negative impact on the international optical technology market and the related ecosystem. However, the impact of COVID-19 on the audiovisual sector around the world may differ in mature and developing markets, either positively or negatively regardless of location. The pandemic has caused loss of income, jobs, livelihoods, and systemic problems in the audiovisual market. The report of the European Observatory of the Audiovisual Sector suggests that the pandemic has led to a 10% reduction in the revenues of the audiovisual sector. As far as the advertising department is concerned, TV ad revenue fell by 15–20% due to the general decline in the public’s financial well-being. In general, the pandemic disrupted the potential of development of the audiovisual sector in several regions such as Africa-Nigeria, China, India, Hong Kong (attractive markets for foreign investment) [5].

2.2. Define the Role of Museums

The examination of the relationship between culture, economy, and place has been a field of great research interest in the last 30 years both in Europe and in the USA, as the role of qualitative and intangible factors gained particular importance in urban economic development [6][7][8][9][10] linking it, especially in the 80s, with the development of cultural policies in Europe as the main strategy of urban regeneration [11]. Museums were an important component in the contribution of culture to the development of places.
Regarding the definition of a museum, many definitions have been formulated over many decades. One of the first attempts was by Bazin [12], almost sixty years ago, who states that all museums must have as their common goal the reception of the public and the promotion of knowledge and education, except their traditional functions (collection, storage, study, and exhibition) thus function as learning and leisure organizations for every human being. Later, Hooper-Greenhill [13] gave a new dimension to the role of the museum by placing it between the space of research and education, while it is also called upon to respond to the demands of the ‘leisure industry’ (e.g., cinema, theatre, exhibitions, etc.) but also of consumption. A year later, Ginsburgh and Mairesse [14] in an attempt to give a definition to the museum examine the definitions of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the Museums Association (United Kingdom), and the American Association of Museums, concluding that a common element of all approaches is the character of the museum and the functions that differentiate it from other organizations. These functions are conservation, research, and communication. Additionally, the museum as an organization interprets and exhibits the material culture of a given society [15]. Consequently, the internal character of museums as ‘special environments’ takes on an increasingly complex structure including the ‘commercial function’ [16], which makes redefining the role in urban economic and cultural development with a more specialized analysis.
‘The Museum is a non-profit organization, permanently at the service of the society in which it researches, collects, preserves, interprets, and exhibits the tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums support diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, providing diverse experiences for education, entertainment, reflection, and knowledge dissemination’ [17].
This definition gives the museum a distinctly different perspective, incorporating the concepts of inclusiveness, community participation, and sustainability, connecting the museum with them. In particular, research relating museums to local communities has been of intense concern to researchers [18][19] as what they are interested in is ensuring its connection with the community, as it is the only way for the museum to be a living cell of culture but also to be in an organic relationship with the local community and region to which it belongs by designing a participatory regional policy for culture [20][21][22] while a corresponding focus is also observed on the connection of museums with sustainability [23][24][25][26].
Museums are therefore one of the most important factors in the cultural stock both at the national and local levels as they are linked to the cultural, social, and economic development of the places [27]. The explosion of interest in museums was placed in the mid-70s and was expressed through the orientation of many European cities, mainly industrial ones, which in the context of deindustrialization and as they found themselves in an economic recession turned to new models and areas of development, such as civilization. This effort was accompanied by the creation of new museums as well as the expansion of existing ones [16]. Kotler et al. [28], refer to a ‘museum mega-wave’, interpreting this phenomenon as the result of competition between places/cities and their decision to improve their images and their degree of attractiveness.
International practice records many examples of investment and interest in museums, thus recognizing the important role they play in the economic and cultural development of regions [29][30]. At the same time, they are an integral part of cultural tourism and are recognized as ‘one of the most basic forms of tourist flows worldwide’ [31]. Museums are considered as a major destination attraction motivator regarding tourists’ decision to visit potential destinations [32][33]. Through the development of cultural tourism, museum functions have changed their role from traditional practices such as those of collection, conservation, and display of exhibits, as well as education and research to modern forms of practices such as relaxation, tourism, and entertainment thus upgrading their importance in the economic development of the areas where they are located [34].

2.3. Museums in the Digital Era

Digital Cultural Heritage (DCH) represents a challenging research and innovation field still today, living in a very transforming time [35] [Clini and Quattrini, 2021]. Over the past 20 years, museums have made digital technologies essential resources for achieving and innovating their operations, while offering them a great possibility to improve cultural democracy, participation, and access to heritage [36] [Carlandini, 2021]. The current pandemic confirms the dependence of museums on digital tools, which have become the only means of reaching the public during lockdowns. Many institutions have been offering hundreds of forms of digital/digitized content generally through their own website, in theory opening the doors to new user groups [37] [Lerario, 2023]. Digital tools and new technologies provide possibilities both to promote the image of museums with the aim of attracting new visitors and to communicate with the public, to remain open, and to display their content online [38][39][40]. In this way, a museum communication environment is formed which is called a ‘virtual’ museum (virtual museum) or ‘cyber museum’ [41]. The ongoing digital transformation seems to be so pervasive that the concept of the ‘virtual museum’ is being discussed extensively. It is also argued that digital technology has revolutionized the relationship between museums and the public, which now includes both physical visitors and virtual followers. Taking advantage of new digital interactive methods [42][43], visitors are also increasingly active in the production of cultural content [44], moving from mere consumers to co-producers of museum contributions. Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is significantly accelerating digital transformations within museums, which suddenly end up only interacting with digital audiences for long periods. Due to prolonged closures, museums are increasingly forced to reinvent their business models to intelligently exploit digital technologies. An increasingly targeted digital offer can change the physical interaction between museums and the public, leading to innovative digital strategies such as those based on the use of artificial intelligence [45].
Museums are entering the post-digital era, where the use of digital technology is considered an integral element of museums’ structure and operation. It is legitimized through the emergence of new job profiles as well as workflows, but it also influences strategic decisions, for example through budget allocations for digital projects. However, the post-digital condition encourages new research perspectives where digital technology is a ‘normative presence’ [46], regardless of the degree of assimilation and requires an integrated analytical approach in different dimensions: operational, organizational, and strategy [45].

2.4. The Impacts of COVID-19 on Museums

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on museums around the world. Due to lockdown restrictions, physical collections and gallery spaces were inaccessible to the public for extended periods of time, having a severe financial impact on museums internationally [47]. More specifically, according to a survey by the International Council of Museums [17], in April 2020, almost 95% of museums internationally were forced to close to ensure the well-being of staff and visitors, resulting in serious economic, social, and political implications. At the same time, in a global survey by UNESCO [2] (May 2020b) which concerns about 95,000 museums, it is estimated that more than 85,000 museums, or about 90% of museum institutions internationally, have been affected by the temporary closure as part of the measures taken to fight against COVID-19. This international picture is also reflected in the data in Table 1, which concerns the number of museums that were temporarily closed in each continent. It is typical with the exception of museums in Asia and the Pacific Ocean, where the percentage of museums closed is around 60%. In the rest of the continents, it exceeds 90%, and in Africa it reaches (around 88%).
Table 1. The number of museums affected or still affected by the closure measures.
Area Number of Museums Number of Museums Temporarily Closed Percentages of Museums Temporarily Closed
Western Europe and other countries 61,634 58,281 94.6%
East Europe 11,465 11,311 98.7%
Latin America and the Caribbean 8067 8061 99.9%
Asia and the Pacific Ocean 12,195 7237 59.3%
Africa 841 738 87.8%
Arab States 473 473 100%
Total of 195 states 94,675 86,801 90.9%
Source: UNESCO [2].
During the lockdown, many museums operated their digital activities to a greater extent. In terms of visitors, online traffic to museums has increased by 70% since they closed, which generally shows that there has been a response to the increase in digital services provided, such as social media as the platforms of choice for their activities. In addition, online services like Facebook and Instagram have played a very big role in the popularity of online services as well as educational material followed by videos, movies, and finally, viewing their collection.
The economic impact in all its aspects is significant, creating a great sense of uncertainty, with predicted effects such as reduced staff, reduced programs, loss of public and private funding, and museum closures. Overall, the results show that the situation is critical, with serious financial implications for all aspects of cultural institutions’ activities.

This entry is adapted from the peer-reviewed paper 10.3390/heritage6060248


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