Health and Healthcare Systems

Some museums might not reopen post-COVID. Here’s why that matters.

Image: Photo by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

Sabrina Sholts
Young Scientist, World Economic Forum
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COVID-19

  • According to data from UNESCO, COVID-19 temporarily closed 85,000 museums globally.
  • After the pandemic one third of all museums globally could downsize, and nearly 13 % may not reopen.
  • Closures will be uneven across the globe and have dramatic impacts in African, Arab and Pacific countries.

Last month, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) reported dire statistics about the impacts of COVID-19 on the global museum landscape. According to their surveys, about 90 percent of 95,000 museums closed their doors during the pandemic. Almost one third could downsize, according to estimates, and nearly 13 percent may not reopen.

The findings also expose alarming inequalities in regional impacts; the greatest concerns about permanent closure come from African, Arab and Pacific countries, where museums are relatively young and scarce. Other concerns include inadequate security management, structural safety, and collections conservation during COVID-19 lockdowns.

These statistics warn of immeasurable losses to culture, history and science. The current ICOM definition states that a museum acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the heritage of humanity and its environment “in the service of society and its development”, although a newly proposed revision emphasizes its social responsibilities and community partnerships.

With such a broad remit and so much diversity, the value of museums is therefore difficult to capture. However, by seeing the ways that museums are tackling the greatest global challenges of this moment, their unique and vital role in society becomes clearer, and their potential decimation becomes darker.

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Museums and racism

Massive protests against police brutality and racial injustice have erupted across the United States and worldwide. Spurred by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody, a national uprising has forced America’s reckoning with centuries of systemic racism.

Among the many sites where protesters have convened in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has been a symbolic rallying point. Although temporarily closed, the building has drawn thousands of people to its grounds.

Protesters gather at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. in June 2020
Protesters gather at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. in June 2020 Image: Sabrina Sholts

This is perhaps not accidental. In his book A Fool’s Errand, Lonnie Bunch III, the founding director of NMAAHC and Secretary of the Smithsonian, states the museum’s goal “to be a site of transformation that would make America better...by helping to bridge the chasms like race that have divided America since its inception.” In response to the protests, NMAAHC accelerated the digital release of their Talking About Race web portal in order to foster dialogue about racism and its corrosive consequences.

This work exemplifies the social utility of museums in catalyzing and contextualizing conversations about difficult subjects, with lessons from the past to help make changes in the present.

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Museums and health

The COVID-19 pandemic has surpassed 8 million cases in six months, with devastating and disproportionate tolls on communities everywhere. Fear and misinformation have spread with the disease, making accurate science communication key in the fight against it. In 2018, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) opened the exhibit Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World with a focus on the pandemic risks of emerging zoonotic viruses - a singularly forward-looking endeavor.

Although the physical exhibit is temporarily closed, the public continues to learn about the coronavirus within an ecological “One Health” framework via the exhibit’s digital version, virtual tour and online programs. NMNH also created a free, multilingual, Outbreak DIY toolkit for community health education worldwide, which has been customized by other museums and venues in 41 countries to date.

This initiative demonstrates how museums, with a valuable combination of scientific resources and public trust, can increase knowledge about critical health issues – and their connection to social and environmental issues – both globally and locally.

People visit Outbreak DIY in a public park in San Salvador, where the English-Spanish panels were displayed at Museo Nacional de Antropologia Dr. David J. Guzmán in December 2018
People visit Outbreak DIY in a public park in San Salvador, where the English-Spanish panels were displayed at Museo Nacional de Antropologia Dr. David J. Guzmán in December 2018 Image: Carlos Pineda

Museums and climate change

Earth’s carbon dioxide levels hit a record high last month, reaching a monthly average atmospheric concentration of 417 parts per million. Combined with global surface air temperatures showing the warmest May in the data record (0.63°C warmer than the 1981-2020 average), it is clear that our planet’s future is ever perilous.

Declaring a planetary emergency concerning climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, deforestation and other anthropogenic impacts, the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London has committed to an ambitious plan that will unlock critical scientific data and empower the public to take action.

With digitization, genomic technologies, and the participation of citizen scientists, the true scale and scope of this emergency can be better understood through collections of natural history. At NHM and elsewhere, these archives – composed of fossils, bones, minerals, artifacts, preserved tissues, complete organisms, and other records across millions of years – show how museums support science that is essential for recognizing and solving planetary problems.

Museums are the primary means by which we safeguard our past in order to understand our present and shape our future. Unlike some smaller museums, the large institutions highlighted here do not face permanent closure. Yet they have been affected by COVID-19 and illustrate the important functions of museums in our lives. Reopening will test their ability to adapt to a pandemic that has not ended, and – like all museums – to help us respond to more challenges ahead.

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