Culture & COVID: How museums reached the masses amid a global pandemic

Mia Aleman, Editor

In his foundational study on post-Cold War American power, Joseph Nye spoke to an alternative or ‘soft,’ form of power that lies in attracting others willingly to your position by fostering in them empathy or envy self-identification or aspiration. [1]  Culture, both high and low, signals society’s values, which together with its practices and policies comprise its core role as a tool of soft-power. As stewards of culture, museums have the potential to broker international soft power, working alongside or in partnership with institutions and governments to influence broad-based, positive change. [2] Museums possess an abundance of soft-power resources. Their collections include examples of civilization’s highest cultural achievements, and digitally, they foster awe, pride, admiration—the sentiments through which the persuasive power of public diplomacy operates.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has prompted hand-wringing and self-reflection among museum professionals across the world. This crisis has raised many challenging questions for museums, some of which pertain to their relevance and others that address how museums might evolve to reflect the current situation and their role post-COVID-19. [3] Who do museums serve if they can only offer digital content? These crucial questions all fall within the remit of a museum’s role in a community. Some museums have become globally known brands by opening international satellite locations, while others exercise a considerable global reach from their primary location through encyclopedic collections or large-scale exhibitions. Even so, these global networks and international efforts were of little use as COVID-19 kept all visitors at home.

Thus, enters online or digital exhibitions, which replicate, extend, and supplement physical collections. While digital tools have gradually become more commonplace, there is still a general lack of consensus among museum professionals about what a digital or online exhibition might be. Until the COVID-19 crisis, there was, in fact, little discussion about whether they are a valuable strategic option for museums. Much of the debate around online exhibitions initially developed as digital content was seen as supplementary to physical collections; much like the traditional view that saw museum galleries as the central display spaces. However, creating materials designed with digital in mind, rather than as an afterthought, would allow museums to consider how they might act as both knowledge repositories and science communicators to entirely new audiences. Museums respond quickly to urgent needs and generally pursue a more frontline approach within communities in times of crisis. These efforts have tangible results, which is why museums must adapt and continue to serve the public while the pandemic keeps people at home and online.

Soft power grants museums’ agency, and it is then maintained through solid networks of good-faith, international relationships, and deep reserves of public trust. The COVID-19 pandemic has left much of the global public struggling to make sense of the world. Museums are uniquely suited to help the public through these difficult times through their role as science communicators and as collectors of knowledge and culture. These roles, translated into digital content, do not need to emulate what can be done in a gallery. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided museums with a new platform to fulfill the communication role and exploit their position as a knowledge repository, and this reality is fascinating. Throughout the pandemic, museums have demonstrated their efficacy in addressing issues of global importance, which only further strengthens their role as international actors exerting influence on the international system.

[1] Nye, Joseph S. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy, no. 80 (1990): 153–71. 

[2] Muscat, Marcie M. “The Art of Diplomacy: Museums and Soft Power.” E-International Relations, November 9, 2020.

[3] Kahn, Rebecca. “Corona as Curator: How Museums Are Responding to the Pandemic.” Elephant in the Lab. Elephant in the Lab, April 14, 2020.