Editor's note: The COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of museums around the world brought a particular problem for JSAH's newly appointed exhibition review editor, Patricio del Real: a sudden absence of evident subject matter. Fortunately, Dr. del Real was up to the challenge. It was his idea to approach architectural curators working in several cities and ask how the pandemic has affected the work they are doing. His introduction and their reports follow. —KE
Shutdowns, quarantine orders, and social distancing guidelines had already been enacted in some parts of the world in early March 2020 as I began to assign reviews of the many architecture and design exhibitions that had recently opened. Once the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic struck New York City and Boston—the two cities where I live—I thought it important to create a record of these unprecedented times. Amid the initial shock and disorientation, I contacted architecture and design curators from across the globe for their perspectives on the lockdown's impact on their institutions as well as the impact of the turn to digital technologies on their work. Would the proposed “virtual museums” cut it? Would our beloved white-box spaces become yet another casualty of the pandemic?
At first, those who responded were hesitant: with the failing health of so many and the mounting deaths around the world, these questions appeared frivolous. Could we emphasize culture at this time? The general uncertainty made it difficult to focus one's thoughts and clouded perspectives on the future. Curators had been answering questions about their institutions' survival, but, as one put it, seldom from the point of view of their strategies and plans with respect to architecture and design exhibitions. I had to ask them to respond quickly, by the end of May, because of publication deadlines. Their thoughts captured a specific moment of a still-evolving situation in cities on four continents: San Francisco, Bogotá, Chicago, New York, São Paulo, Hong Kong, and Rome.
Exhibitions and collections were abandoned to an unknown fate. With lingering empty spaces, museums quickly pivoted to the virtual. The digital has emerged as the sole public sphere for most museums, inflating the hegemony of social media, leaving cultural institutions greedy for eyeballs. Previously, we were dependent on the “experiential installation,” which now has become unfathomable. All who responded echoed the primacy of the physical exhibition as a vital space of public interaction and effective cultural exchange. They highlighted their efforts to embrace digital technologies, noting their need to do better in this area as well as the impediments to doing so; at the same time, they expressed deep concerns regarding the virtual museum's capacity to create meaningful experiences. The challenges are immense, from budgetary cuts that will test the resolve of “reconstruction” efforts, as Pippo Ciorra, senior curator of Rome's MAXXI, observes, to the “mental borders” that sever transnational connections, as Shirley Surya, curator of design and architecture at Hong Kong's M+, notes.
We do not know the future, but it feels as though we are living through a period of epochal change. Here is a snapshot of hopes and anxieties as our responses continue to evolve and the effervescence of global social protests give us hope to work for meaningful and effective change.
As a museum curator, I know museums did not cause the COVID-19 pandemic, but did aspects of our behavior contribute to its spread? As global culture widened and international events increased, so did travel; being there to experience an event or space in person and to represent the institution is important, but the number of can't-miss programs was becoming untenable. For the foreseeable future, the ways in which people interact—with each other, with objects, with space—will be different in all aspects of daily life, including museum work. It is time to reflect on museum protocols of the recent past, iterate new spaces for engagement in the present, and emerge from this historical moment with more sustainable practices and renewed relevance.
As a curator of architecture and design (A+D) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I value exhibition design as much as content, and I revel in engaging visitors, hoping they leave the museum with a new awareness of design and its impact on behavior and the environment. Our field has been on the front line of increased interactivity and experiential installations within exhibitions. At SFMOMA, we explored the hybrid presentation of original design materials and spatial interaction in the exhibition Designed in California (2018), which looked at the emergence of digital tools and technologies in design. We installed the Eames Office Conference Room from SFMOMA's collection as a period room in visual dialogue with the available technological equipment of the time to further understand the shifting landscape of the creative process. In The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism (2018), we re-created a condominium unit from this Northern California coastal development, allowing visitors to experience the efficient living space as staged in the middle of the gallery surrounded by original drawings and period photographs framed on the walls. These curatorial strategies were effective and popular with visitors. With each new exhibition, however, we were being asked to expand interactivity, often just for interactivity's sake and for selfie backdrops. The popular “Museum of Ice Cream” was increasingly held up as an example of a successful experiential installation. As museums navigate social distancing and hygienic spaces, that model is now a thing of the past.
SFMOMA's A+D department has been inching into digital space as an exhibition platform, mostly providing visual glimpses into how now-defunct software worked when new. Sharing exhibitions and works of design virtually creates good documentation, but the experience generally lacks dimension and interaction. A large investment is required to construct and maintain a unique, compelling, and seamless digital experience that holds the public's attention long enough to justify the expense. In 2015, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York launched the Pen, a pen-shaped digital device that visitors could use to tap object labels to assemble personal collections of favorite works to study later, when they reconnected with the museum online. This innovation was admirable for creating twenty-first-century interaction in an opulent nineteenth-century mansion without compromising either, and visitors found the process of tapping favorite objects enjoyable in the moment, but for those who did not follow up after leaving the museum, it was not that different from snapping a photo and sharing it on social media. Utilizing proprietary devices and systems takes more budget and support than most museums can afford. What if museums were to get creative with existing software, or partner with software companies, to establish a new digital white cube? A dynamic online exhibition space could emerge as the new neutral, “blank-slate” gallery during the pandemic.
The digital gallery, however, should not replace the in-person museum experience but extend aspects of it to a broader online audience, thereby expanding the conversation around it. We will try to accomplish this in our upcoming exhibition Tatiana Bilbao Estudio: Architecture from Outside In by transforming a discussion designed to take place in the exhibition's forum seating to a hashtag, a change that has the added benefit of promoting an ongoing dialogue. Another transition will involve adjusting the large-scale model intended for visitor interactions to a series of posts featuring submitted configurations. An unintended advantage to this new approach is that it will allow for each version to be archived and seen by more people. We had not considered the beyond-gallery experience for these exhibition components, but we welcome the opportunity to test new methods of engagement. Museums cannot retreat to rote, uninspired displays or programming. Artists, architects, and designers are not withdrawing; they are constantly creating new works and proliferating new ideas. Visitors—in galleries and online—deserve dense offerings of responsive, thoughtful, and provocative works, and the opportunity to join ongoing conversations.
As museums reexamine revenue streams, with a projected 50 percent to 70 percent decrease in in-person visitors, society cannot lose sight of the fact that art, architecture, and design are vital to its collective well-being. It is time to recognize the resilience of humanity by increasing intellectual and financial investment in museums, ensuring that entire collections are not lost. While carefully reviewing current internal operations with the goal of making them more financially sustainable, museums should experiment with different digital platforms that can be easily modified in order to expand access to content and engage greater numbers of people.
On 16 March 2020, the Museo de Arquitectura Leopoldo Rother in Bogotá—the sole architecture museum in Colombia, located on the campus of the National University—was abandoned to its fate with the exhibition Víctimas, una obra de John Hejduk still in its main gallery (Figure 1). This show about the victims of Nazi atrocities paradoxically acquired new meaning with the involuntary confinement of Colombia's residents to their homes. The Colombian government, like many others around the world, countered the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and the high risk of infection with a strict quarantine; the museum was closed only four days after the order was issued. This quick and unprecedented lockdown led to the eviction of all museum personnel (facilities, security, archive, administrative, management, and curatorial) from the building; they left behind all work, research, events, and exhibitions in progress, as well as an important collection of original works, today at risk of deterioration.
The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the displacement of haptic experiences by optical, digital ones—a process already in progress worldwide before the outbreak. The pandemic abruptly severed the direct relationship between exhibitions and museum visitors. This problem has led our museum team to rethink ways to reestablish this connection, by creating animations, explanatory videos, digital magazines, and virtual tours of the museum and the university campus. We have embraced virtualization as we continue to bring resources online, update events, and enhance daily diffusion via Instagram. These initiatives are important, but they are insufficient for keeping alive public interest and links with the museum. Moreover, this virtual museum challenges our vision to transform passive spectators into active players in our exhibitions and events.
Our current mission focuses on “space pedagogy,” which articulates relationships between creative processes and the making of experiences by finding points of convergence between disciplines. The museum is the epicenter of this project; the building is central to our work, research, and curatorial practice, which we understand as creating unique environments with coproduced museographic mechanisms, not simply reality simulators. We are used to working as a team, around worktables, in conversations and discussions, and to continually using different areas of the museum and its public outdoor spaces to build interactions and face-to-face exchanges. Our exhibitions are based on a dialogue between theoretical research and practical-experimental experience. With the current situation, this stage for public experiential encounters is no longer physically shared; it has been transformed into the sum of many private and isolated spaces. With the COVID-19 crisis, it is precisely this idea of physical space as one of creative encounters that is called into question.
Facing the current uncertainty, it is essential that we imagine alternative scenarios and strategies to bring together all the actors involved in the process, experimentation, learning, and production of the museum space. We must think about and use virtualization as a tool to encourage nonvirtual activities. Our present strategies and projects spring from current exhibitions and from activities carried out by our various research groups:
Inside–Outside gathers personal stories and family memories as a testament to the pandemic; it seeks to produce miniature exhibitions following the tradition of the Museum of Innocence, the Small Scientific Theater, and the Curiosities Cabinet.
Pages of Memory proposes topics to the public about the current situation; the participants will write and weave stories to create a community text.
Lines on a Journey explores the city through drawings; transformed into a manual, it is workshopped at home to explore the psychology of private life.
Eye on Rother is a photography competition focusing on times of confinement; the idea is to show, through the camera lens, relationships between private interiors and public exteriors.
Lunárquicos is an architectural teaching workshop for children that seeks to empower parents as teachers through educational games with scale models.
Post_Arq interviews architects and uses artificial intelligence to interpret data and understand influences (past) and trends (future).
Audiovisualities presents virtual re-creations of our latest exhibitions, Víctimas and Ciudad Isla, which deal with issues of exclusion and confinement, and so are directly related to the current crisis.
3D-Lab develops devices and prototypes that mediate between space and the body as it faces COVID-19.
Cinedificio is a cinema and architecture series focusing on domestic space in filmography and provisionally replacing haptic space with imagined space.
As we collectively draw up a resource support policy and prepare to recover the physical museum (with all the health and protection measures that this entails), our mission of space pedagogy remains: we seek to transform the sight and activate all the senses of the viewer's body.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, we remain committed to the value of art and culture as essential disciplines and fields that shape us, challenge us, and help us grapple with the complexities of daily life. Like so many of our colleagues working within and outside arts organizations around the world, we are adapting to the unfolding situation and contemplating an uncertain future. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the resilience—and also the fragility—of the artistic landscape. Like others, our program within the Department of Architecture and Design has been significantly affected. However, we will continue to provide support to our community and help lead the critical conversations around social space and public trust.
We have found that projects that were already under way feel ever more pertinent, including an exhibition on the work of the Ambiguous Standards Institute that was meant to open in May 2020 and is now slated for later in the year (Figure 2). Based in Istanbul, ASI is a research-based collective that investigates the development of standards—whether for time, measurements, building components, food, or health care—and assesses their impact on daily life. The collective's research makes clear that although the world is becoming more standardized, ambiguous standards (or the lack of any standards at all) are equally pervasive. At a time when standards of health and access to information and resources are being rethought across the globe, ASI's research takes on new urgency. This exhibition and the collective's online archive invite us to consider the implications and shortcomings of a standardized world that profoundly shapes our lived experiences.
We already have a much larger audience online than the approximately 1.6 million people who visit us annually from around the world. We might see this level of engagement in one month on our website and social media channels, so creating content for digital platforms is something we have long been committed to. However, the opportunity right now is to continue to build a digital presence that can endure into the future.
We must constantly rethink online experiences and resources and create projects tailor-made for digital viewing, rather than projects that are better experienced in person yet are published on the web. Responding to a 300 percent uptick in online engagement, our department has placed a renewed emphasis on an initiative that was well under way before we began working remotely as the result of Chicago's citywide stay-at-home order. This project aims to improve access to, and the quality of, collection materials online, ensuring that they continue to inspire and inform. A year ago, under a Creative Commons license, the Art Institute began allowing users to download high-resolution images of our objects for free, giving scholars, students, art lovers, and others better access to the collection. In concert, the Department of Architecture and Design has worked over the past few years to digitize the institute's extensive collection of drawings, models, objects, textiles, videos, and photographs, often providing close-up views that only conservators would typically see. We have also been tagging artworks to make them more easily findable online. In addition, we have started a more robust project to write alternative texts using assistive technology such as screen readers to represent images. These concise descriptions improve our collections' accessibility by providing users, including those who are blind, with information about what is depicted in individual images.
We have also begun to add many new artist biographies to the website, with links to collection works, past exhibitions, archival material, and other resources. A biography of architect Bruce Goff, for example, now features links to a film on his 1949 Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, that our department commissioned from and produced with filmmakers Spirit of Space in 2017 for the opening of our twentieth- and twenty-first-century architecture and design galleries. Four more films were commissioned to explore other seminal works in the collection: Louis Sullivan's System of Architectural Ornament, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's designs for the Illinois Institute of Technology, Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City, and Charlotte Perriand's prefabricated bathroom and kitchen unit from Les Arcs resort in France.
The films are effective when viewed in juxtaposition to related works of art, but they also stand alone when streamed online and shared with friends for collective viewing. They give viewers an opportunity to see a project at full scale and understand its context, how it was finished, and how it lives on today. They also provide opportunities for a diverse range of voices—curators, scholars, critics, and even a homeowner—to reflect on these exceptional works and suggest their continued relevance. Moreover, they include archival footage, ephemera, and other materials that create a sense of context that might not be as easily achievable in a gallery setting. As we explore innovative digital experiences, our goal is to create content that has longevity and that can be used across multiple channels. We also want to allow for deeper explorations of the life and work of architects and designers, and to enhance the time our audiences spend connecting with our collections and programs both before and after they visit the museum. I have long hankered to develop a documentary about the expanded role of design: what better moment than now to think critically about alternative formats for our projects, given current resources and increasingly sophisticated digital tools, as well as the various shapes these projects could take, both online and off.
The COVID-19 pandemic has mercilessly exposed the inherent inadequacies and gross economic inequities in the United States, leaving the least privileged in a situation of great vulnerability and distress, in terms of both health and prosperity. The pandemic has also exposed the vulnerability of museums and their reliance on philanthropy and visitor fees, with direct consequences for our work as curators. While many smaller cultural institutions and their staffs are feeling the devastating effects of these systemic failures, layoffs, and furloughs, the Museum of Modern Art has so far been in a comparatively comfortable position, even though the effects and consequences of the shutdown have been profound and will be felt for years to come. What the current lockdown affords—at the time of writing, it has been in effect for two months—is an opportunity and indeed an obligation to fundamentally rethink what we as an institution can do, not only in offering thoughtful programs for our audiences and constituencies but also in supporting the architectural community in a meaningful way at a time when many are facing grave, even existential difficulties as a result of the ongoing crisis.
When the newly expanded MoMA opened in October 2019—adding some 30 percent new gallery space for our vast collection—our thinking was all about “touch”: welcoming visitors in person, assisting them in tailoring their visits according to their own preferences, and making their experiences memorable (Figure 3). COVID-19 is now forcing us to imagine how a “touchless” experience can still be welcoming and rewarding, once it becomes possible for us to reopen our doors. Even when we do open, we will not be able to return to business as usual. In order to provide a safe working environment, we are developing models that will allow some of us to continue working remotely while at the same time ensuring the smooth operation of the institution. The same is true for our visitors: initially at least, we will limit the number of people present in the galleries at any time to a small fraction of the number allowed in before the virus. Smaller numbers will mean smaller budgets, which will require more improvisation and flexibility from the curatorial team, but it will all be in the service of one primary goal: safety first. While MoMA is committed to avoiding layoffs if at all possible, the numbers of curatorial and other staff are being significantly reduced through measures such as retirement programs and attrition. This new reality will mean an even stronger need to focus our priorities, and it will require an all-hands-on-deck mentality from everyone.
The museum's recent expansion gave curators the opportunity to rethink how best to present its diverse collection and to enact an ambitious system of regular and frequent rotations and interdisciplinary conversations across galleries. The objective is to show more aspects of the collection in ever-changing displays and contexts, to challenge the teleological modernist canon through a plurality of global narratives, and to give voice to those who have not previously been heard enough, including women, Black artists, and ethnic minorities. While we remain fully committed to these fundamental values, the ongoing crisis will slow the pace of these rotations; at the same time, it brings a responsibility to develop narratives that are particularly meaningful in this moment. Special exhibitions will be delayed; shows already scheduled will be spread out over several years. Nevertheless, we remain committed to the direction we have taken: recent exhibitions on Latin American and Yugoslav architecture are being followed by ongoing research projects on the modernist architecture of South Asia and contemporary production in China; Israeli-born architect and designer Neri Oxman (b. 1976) is currently featured in a one-woman show (the contents of which are available for viewing on MoMA's website); and an exhibition on the intersection of architecture, Blackness, and anti-Black racism in American cities is well under way. We are transforming the Young Architects Program, a long-standing collaboration with our partner MoMA PS1, into a new program that will lend curatorial and institutional support to New York's architectural community and give its exponents a platform for discussing and showcasing the present and future of architecture.
For the time being, while the museum remains closed, we have developed several online programs that provide resources to our audience and the community at large. Curators have given virtual tours of exhibitions in the (bi)weekly “Virtual Views” series on MoMA's YouTube channel; they have written features on specific aspects of the collection and other relevant current topics (such as commemorating Earth Day) for the online MoMA Magazine; and they have participated in informal conversations with architects, designers, and colleagues on Instagram's IGTV. The department has collected and published recommendations of favorite movies, video games, and readings related to the pandemic, and much more. The crisis has prompted us to rethink how we can provide meaningful content in these times of insecurity and distress, and how we might engage with our audience in new ways. Many of these experiments are likely to continue after the health crisis ends, and curators will keep harnessing MoMA's online platform as an important site for curatorial activity, on par with our analogue spaces on Fifty-Third Street.
That said, I am convinced that the virtual museum will never supersede the on-site experience. The long quarantine, the months of being connected to the outside world exclusively through screens and media devices, has only strengthened the need for shared experiences and a sense of togetherness. While the current situation has had a profound effect on many institutions, I remain optimistic that this insatiable desire to interact, empathize, and socialize in public space and to engage in shared conversations will keep museums relevant and essential to our societies.
As it has for museums around the world, the current pandemic has endangered the activities of the Museu da Casa Brasileira (Brazilian House Museum) in São Paulo, which specializes in architecture and design. At the MCB, we have instituted a “war committee” to ensure effective interdisciplinary exchanges during the health emergency and the related economic crisis, which have hit our museum hard. The pandemic has led to a significant destabilization of our production teams and the cancellation of the National Design Award (for the first time in more than three decades). Since 1986, this award has fostered close collaboration between designers and industry and promoted lively nationwide discussions on contemporary design production and the technical and cultural aspects of everyday objects. Our shows do not focus exclusively on architecture; rather, more broadly, they problematize the constitution of the habitat, from objects to landscapes. The MCB's curatorial agenda encompasses diverse activities, including exhibitions of design, crafts, and contemporary, historical, and autochthonous architecture, with recent shows such as Lelé—Architect of Health and Happiness (2013), The Amazon Riverside House (2013), Ways of Showing: The Exhibition Architecture of Lina Bo Bardi (2015), Tapas—Spanish Design for Gastronomy (2015), EMBRAER—Design in Brazilian Aviation (2017), and Remnants of the Atlantic Forest (2019) (Figure 4). Casas do Brasil (Houses of Brazil), an ongoing exhibition and publication project that started in 2006, explores different house typologies and ways of living among Brazilians, along with experimental solutions resulting from cultural experiences of environments, availability of materials, and local techniques. Because of the pandemic and its economic fallout, this year's edition, Conexões paulistanas, a visual documentation of how more than half of São Paulo residents live, has been postponed. Its catalogue is waiting to be published, as the museum currently lacks the money to cover printing costs.
The MCB is run by a private nonprofit organization, and the shutdown that began on 17 March 2020 came with severe budget cuts, as public funds were redirected to health care. About 40 percent of the MCB's resources come from the rental of its spaces and from ticket sales and parking fees. The other 60 percent comes from the Department of Culture of the state of São Paulo, which provides for the employee payroll. The government's economic measures in response to the pandemic resulted in a 50 percent budget cut for the MCB for the months of May, June, and July. This, along with the interruption of the other sources of income, resulted in layoffs, furloughs, and the elimination of resources for all cultural events. For example, Ecological Urbanism in Latin America, an exhibition produced in collaboration with the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, has been put on hold. All on-site educational activities have been canceled, and maintenance activities for the building and the museum's collection have been reduced to a minimum.
The museum's team has been working on digital media strategies to engage the public with retrospective and prospective content, presenting past shows not previously available digitally and creating new content for a virtual museum. Our teams in design, communications, exhibitions, music, education, preservation, awards, and research are hard at work. They are recovering and digitizing past events, design award editions, and education programs; researching the collection, its history, and acquisitions; and bringing back music shows through playlists. Our prospective content focuses the skills and creative potential of our teams as we develop remote audience engagement and look to expand the role of the institution, cooperating with emergency services in the field of design and architecture that seek solutions to the pandemic crisis.
Still, under these immense pressures, it is difficult to envision more aggressive alternatives that could rebuild the social engagement and diffusion of contents that take place in the museum space. In addition, we cannot be certain of public expectations, or of new behaviors that will emerge because of future restrictions on social gatherings or other safety protocols. We are aware that a new museum will emerge. Traditional expectations of continued public growth, adherence to cultural programs, and face-to-face exhibitions have become restrictive. We must rethink our qualitative relationship with our audiences, revisiting the circulation of concepts and ideas fluidly, and thinking from an immaterial memory based in physical, architectural, and spatial aspects.
A month after the M+ museum in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found two birds' nests in Liang Shuo's installation In the Peak, located at the pavilion that hosted the presentation of the 2019 Sigg Prize (which recognizes achievement by artists born or working in the Greater China region) (Figure 5). While Hong Kong has not been in complete lockdown, from January to May the M+ team had to adapt quickly to the pandemic and recent widespread protests. These crises directly affected our programs, causing us, for instance, to cancel “Archigram Cities,” a symposium scheduled to be held in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Issues with China's supply chain also delayed by six months the opening of the new M+ building designed by Herzog & de Meuron. As the ground continues to shift, institutional responses to these changes are not always straightforward. Nevertheless, it seems timely and necessary to reexamine the activity of curating architecture by reconsidering fundamentals, current modes of presentation, and the rise of online displays.
Watching Yo-Yo Ma play one's favorite cello piece on Facebook or getting direct feedback from an admired architect on Instagram Live—connections such as these have, for many, become lifelines during the pandemic. Likewise, museums have never before relied so much on the web for connecting with their audiences. Programs such as Zoom grant us a wider-than-ever repertoire of virtual means to produce and disseminate knowledge. Still, the absence of physical access to galleries has only reinforced the value of experiencing objects directly, as well as the experiential and social qualities of exhibition spaces. Under social distancing, most museums have temporarily lost their physical audiences. Yet exhibitions continue to be popular where in-person visits are allowed, as evidenced by the Meditations in an Emergency show, which opened in late May at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. A website, after all, is no substitute for an immersive installation, which provides an experience that is in some ways akin to discovering the sounds, shops, and alleys of an unfamiliar city.
With the loss of lives, separation from loved ones, and rise of unemployment that much of the world is now experiencing, we have a need to make sense of, and build empathy for, human frailty, mortality, and the baseline priorities of our lives. In the face of such issues, one is confronted by how seemingly trivial or indulgent the topics of our curatorial investigations have often been, serving little beyond our own intellectual interests or the vanities of an architectural elite. By contrast, initiatives like the online open-design platform Design for Emergency and the Victoria and Albert Museum's online Pandemic Objects project are timely and meaningful explorations of the range of responses and solutions to disease in design and material culture. At M+, we will embrace these new references and frameworks as we continue to plan our programs and build our collection.
Yet can we do so without performatively demonstrating relevance, monetary worth, productivity, or moral hubris in our work, especially at a time when we should perhaps listen more, rethink existing assumptions, and expand our criteria for assessing the value and meaning of artworks? Our speed of production, excessive performativity, and press-oriented blockbusters all come under question. Will the need to move much of our work online cause us to produce new lines of inquiry that intersect with issues such as power, vulnerability, transcendence, scarcity, and loneliness, causing us to move beyond object-oriented or author-centric storytelling toward narratives expressing our complex and common humanity?
As a museum in Hong Kong, M+ seeks to uphold an Asia-focused, transnational-global perspective. We believe in, and thrive on, the flow of ideas and agents across cultures and geographies. While the current closing of borders may not immediately affect our new building's inaugural display—which draws from the museum's existing collections—it raises questions of how we are to experience the studios, built projects, and living contexts of artists and architects elsewhere. The learning and exchange these interactions might allow do not generally thrive on digital platforms. Reduced travel budgets and rising ticket prices pose further challenges to the regional and global reach of our research. Protectionist political policies—especially with mounting U.S.–China tensions and finger-pointing about the origins of the coronavirus—create mental borders and prevent collaboration, exchange, and the sharing of knowledge. The pandemic has highlighted human interdependencies, yet some continue to stoke the fires of division and build artificial barriers. As scholars and curators, we must recognize that it is more important than ever that we support work that tracks and reveals the wider movements and intersections of our ideas.
Existing models clearly demand rethinking, yet the temptations of the immediate, spectacular, and lucrative, and of accelerated productivity to meet the demand for novelty, might all too easily turn us back toward the “old normal.” Our challenge lies in keeping our publics cognizant of the losses, and potentials, of systems broken and revealed through this crisis.
Recently, the nestlings left Liang Shuo's installation. Like them, may we, too, have the courage and doggedness to pursue renewal, particularly at a time when the stakes are so high.
I am writing this after eleven weeks of lockdown, just as the MAXXI, like most Italian cultural institutions, is reopening its doors (on 27 May 2020) (Figure 6). Visitor access will be limited to one gallery—featuring the exhibition Gio Ponti: Loving Architecture—and will gradually expand to achieve some kind of normalcy in July. It is troublesome to speculate on the impact of the pandemic, as it is still with us. The lockdown has been relaxed but not completely lifted, and just like each of us, the museum is now living a double life: the normal one and the emergency version, both at the same time. But what does this new normal mean from the MAXXI's point of view?
The museum's initial response to the lockdown was to reprogram the exhibition schedule. Most of the shows that were on display will be extended into the fall or until the end of the year. This will allow audiences to visit well-received shows (such as the Gio Ponti exhibition) and the museum to compensate, somewhat, for the dramatic loss in paid admissions, which make up 30–40 percent of its budget.
As a reaction to lockdown, we quickly developed a plan for our “second,” emergency life, which inevitably meant producing a dense program of online activities. As in many other institutions, this choice made the COVID-19 crisis the heaven and the hell of communication departments. On the one hand, many had long been waiting for such an opportunity to assume leadership of the museum and enlist an army of directors, curators, artists, architects, conservators, designers, publishers, educators, and researchers as obedient “talking heads,” to be strategically deployed in their digital video operations. On the other, the costs—in pressure, stress, energy, and resources—of putting together and effectively disseminating such daily communications take their toll. Making the online museum visible and distinctive in today's overcrowded virtual space is quite a feat, especially when we consider that online programming brings hardly any discernible revenue to the institution.
In any case, it is too early to say whether or not the MAXXI's online project (#iorestoacasa) will be successful, but surely there have been some immediate positive outcomes. The jump into daily online programming has reenergized a museum that previously calculated its time in terms of months and years. It has activated every member of the team, linking each one to the life of the institution every day. This as we were forced to stay at home, confined to “smart working,” or sheltered under temporary unemployment laws. In fact, it is important to note, the MAXXI was able—or chose—to preserve every job, including those of interns and short-term collaborators.
Can the museum incorporate the global discussion and our disciplines' critical and creative responses to the pandemic? Our first curatorial proposal is both lucky and brave. Last year, we put up the exhibition At Home: Projects for Contemporary Housing. This thematic and collection-based show was dedicated to domestic space as represented in dialogues between collective housing and single-family homes (e.g., the Corviale housing project versus the Casa Malaparte) and between older iconic figures and younger contemporary ones (e.g., Giancarlo De Carlo versus David Adjaye). This show will reopen in June 2020 as a platform for debate regarding post-COVID architecture, presenting a show within the show that will incorporate new voices, faces, words, research, and relevant design projects.
As we reopen the MAXXI with preexisting and new physical exhibitions and installations, the staff has been experiencing the challenge of running two museums simultaneously: one physical and one virtual. Is this second life—of online programs, educational presentations, talks, interviews, festivals, performances, digital visits to our collection and to the modern architecture heritage in the city—sustainable? Will this virtual museum live on after the pandemic? Personally, I do not believe it will make much sense to keep this duality fully animated. The vitality of a public institution must be measured by the intensity of its public life, gauged by the presence of visitors in its galleries. There is much we can now learn about the virtual museum, but I am skeptical of the mantra common today that “nothing will again be the same.” I do not expect major changes in the actual process of curating and preparing physical exhibitions, but I do think the pandemic experience will leave traces in other areas of the museum, especially in its educational and communication activities, its interactions with other institutions, and its contact with audiences.
As museums in Italy and Europe reopen, they will be working against their budgets. At the MAXXI, there will be strict occupancy rules and limited numbers of visitors—local visitors only, as there are currently in Rome few foreign tourists or other travelers from outside Italy or even other Italian cities. Still, nearly all our institutions are going to reopen, because we want to believe that culture is at the core of our collective identity. This will put some institutions at risk and will require tough negotiations with public and private funding bodies. The MAXXI is an experimental institution in Italy, living on both private and public funding, so we are preparing for hard times. Yet as we in Europe plan for what is ahead, we must not lose sight of how tough and complicated this situation is in countries where culture is not so highly valued as a public good as it is here. Ours is a battle worth fighting, especially at a time when we need to think in terms of reconstruction—not of buildings, but rather of a new consciousness, new social attitudes, and cooperation.