0437 GMT May 27, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has no borders and has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of citizens from countries across the globe. But this outbreak is not just having an effect on the societies of today, it is also impacting our past.
Cultural resources and heritage assets – from sites and monuments, historic gardens and parks, museums and galleries, to the intangible lifeways of traditional culture bearers – require ongoing safeguarding and maintenance in an overstretched world increasingly prone to major crises.
Meanwhile, the heritage sector is already working hard to preserve the COVID-19 moment, predicting that future generations will need documentary evidence, photographic archives and artifacts to help them understand this period of history.
The severity of the pandemic, and the infection control responses that followed, has caused great uncertainties and potential long-term knock-on effects within the sector, especially for smaller and medium-sized institutions and businesses.
A survey published by the Network of European Museum Organizations (NEMO) and communications within organizations such as the International Committee for Archeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) show that the majority of European museums are closed, incurring significant losses of income. By the beginning of April, 650 museums from 41 countries had responded to the NEMO survey, reporting 92 percent of them were closed.
Large museums such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam are losing €100,000-€600,000 per week. Only about 70 percent of staff are currently being retained on average at most of the institutions.
Museums located in tourist areas have privately reported initial losses of 75-80 percent income based on the Heritage Sector Briefing to the UK government. Reports are also emerging of philanthropic income fall of 80-90 percent by heritage charities with many heading towards insolvency within weeks.
Cambodia’s Angkor Wat heritage site has lost 99.5 percent of its income in April compared to the same time last year.
Meanwhile, restorations to the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris came to an abrupt halt due to coronavirus just prior to the first anniversary of the fierce fire that damaged it. Builders have since returned to the site.
The situation is especially dire for culture bearers within remote and isolated indigenous communities still reeling from other catastrophes, such as the disastrous fires in Australia and the Amazon. Without means of social distancing these communities are at much higher risk of being infected and in turn their cultural custodianship affected.
It is interesting to think about how this crisis will reshape visitor experience in the future.
The NEMO survey reports that more than 60 percent of the museums have increased their online presence since they were closed due to social distancing measures, but only 13.4 percent have increased their budget for online activities. We have yet to see more data about online traffic in virtual museums and tours, but as it stands it is certainly showing signs of significant increase.
The human right of access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage is guaranteed by international law, emphasized in the Human Rights Council in its recent Resolution 33/20 (2016) that notes the destruction of or damage to cultural heritage may have a detrimental and irreversible impact on the enjoyment of cultural rights.
Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
In the future, generations will need the means to understand how the coronavirus pandemic affected our world, just as they can now reflect on the Spanish flu or the Black Death.
Work is underway to preserve this legacy with organizations such as Historic England collecting “lockdown moments in living memories” through sourcing photographs from the public for their archive. Twitter account @Viral Archive, run by a number of academic archeologists, is following in a same vein with the interesting theme of #VirtualShadows.
In the United States, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has assembled a dedicated COVID-19 collection task force. They are already collecting objects including personal protection equipment such as N95 and homemade cloth masks, empty boxes (to show scarcity), and patients’ illustrations.
The National Museum of Australia has invited Australians to share their “experiences, stories, reflections and images of the COVID-19 pandemic” so curators can enhance the “national conversation about an event which is already a defining moment in our nation’s history”.
*Anna M. Kotarba-Morley is a lecturer at Flinders University, Australia. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.