IMD2020 Think Piece by Yanyue Yuan, Assistant Arts Professor, NYU Shanghai

How does limited physical access to museum collections prompt us to reflect on the social nature of museums and rethink the unique value museums can create?

‘Look at that grimacing face in the painting, mum! I can use it as an emoji!’;  ‘Can you imagine sitting on that chair?!  It’s so exquisite but I don’t think it will be comfortable …’;  ‘I did not know this red pillar piece is made of glass…I wonder why the artist chose this particular material and colour…?’

To me, human conversations are the souls of museums, whether it is the conversations we engage in with our companions when visiting exhibitions, or those we have with ourselves stimulated by our encounters with museum collections.  Our modes of social interaction may change due to social distancing, but our desire to explore the unknown; our urge to learn from human legacy in the form of material culture and artworks; our passion for telling and (co-)creating stories, will not diminish.

We must engage in more dialogues and discussions around museums and their social responsibility.  While museums do not directly contribute to curing physical diseases or eliminating miseries, we can trust museums to offer us a touch of humanity.  As museums rise to the challenge of becoming more resilient to risks and crises, new questions need to be asked.  What does access to museums mean when physical visits are restricted?  What does a ‘collection’ mean beyond its physical presence?  How can museums experiment with and create new ways of ‘hosting’ and ‘presenting’ collections beyond storage rooms, gallery spaces and online websites?  How can we ‘curate’ an exhibition for virtual visitors?  What do we hope visitors gain by visiting museums in virtual forms? Who can tell stories about collections and how?