What Role for Culture and Heritage in the Age of COVID-19?

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Apr 27, 2020
by Oscar Tollast
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What Role for Culture and Heritage in the Age of COVID-19?

Participants of What Future for Cultural Heritage? reunite – virtually - to discuss how to strengthen the cultural heritage sector Image created by Catherine Cordasco. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives

It started with a message on March 27, 2020. In a group email, Salzburg Global Seminar encouraged participants of What Future for Cultural Heritage? Perceptions, Problematics, and Potential to join Salzburg Global Fellowship’s new Facebook group. While several joined, fulfilling the email’s primary purpose, another outcome soon developed. What became apparent was a renewed enthusiasm to build on the program’s previous discussions to help strengthen the cultural heritage sector.

There were calls to formalize a “Global Heritage Consortium,” similar to what was discussed in Salzburg last year. COVID-19 will have “repercussions on socio-economic, governance, and value systems,” said one participant. Now is the time to consider what future there is for culture and find purpose amid a “precarious global system.” Now, and in the weeks and months ahead, is the time for responsible leadership, another participant suggested.

Several questions were put forward for discussion: how do we support artists and avoid a cultural desert? What role can culture play to bring people and societies together? How can we use the coronavirus pandemic to implement more sustainable practices? These questions, and more, were considered in a one-hour online discussion titled, What Role for Culture and Heritage in the Age of COVID-19?

The State of Play

The Network of European Museum Organizations (NEMO) already conducted an initial survey on the impact of COVID-19, receiving 650 submissions from 41 countries, including the USA, Philippines, Malaysia, French Polynesia, Iran, and 27 EU member states.

At the time of writing, the majority of museums around the world were closed, resulting in a loss of income. From the data provided, 30% of museums surveyed were losing up to €1,000 per week. Bigger institutions like the Rijksmuseum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, and the Stedelijk Museum, were losing between €100,000 and €600,000 per week.

Institutions are now facing an unexpected shortfall in their budgets. There are concerns jobs will be sacrificed to make up the gap. The NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund said it would provide $75 million in grants and loans to New York City-based social services and cultural organizations. Philanthropic groups can have a big impact and serve as an example to others.
Challenges can lead to the emergence of new ideas and ways of thinking. The culture and heritage sector has a huge opportunity to be innovative around online exchange and learning. More than 60% of the museums surveyed by NEMO had increased their online presence since their closure, while 13.4% had increased their budget for online activities.

But we cannot forget the digital divide. There are 7.7 billion people in the world, but only 3.5 billion online. Not everyone has access to an online device, and the situation is more challenging when countries are in lockdown. Technology provides people in isolation and quarantines a means of distraction and communication, but the issue of accessibility remains.

Some people’s work and living situations, meanwhile, make isolation and quarantine impossible. COVID-19 has exposed existing inequalities and fissures that cut across different societies.

An Online Reunion

The online discussion started with a welcome from Clare Shine, vice president and chief program officer at Salzburg Global. Shine suggested the whole nature of the models in which we run our economies, deliver health, and provide education are “all up for grabs.” There are “rich pickings” to take forward, she added.

After a few teething issues with technology, participants began providing insights from around the world and posed questions for others to consider. Cultural diplomacy is an area that will become more relevant now, said one speaker. How do we design communities to meet the challenges of the future? Do we focus on isolation or sharing?

Another participant expressed their concern about medium-sized cultural institutions in New York City being “squeezed out” as a result of COVID-19. There could be a profound change in what cultural offerings are available in the coming years as societies come to terms with new economic realities. Culture can create a new image of the future, and this is something we should be highlighting.

Participants discussed the lack of financial support for arts and culture in comparison with other sectors. Challenging times can spark innovation and create bonds, however. A participant observed how museums in the US were beginning to use digital platforms more creatively and reach audiences in a new way. People, meanwhile, are re-evaluating their values and recognizing their existing connections. One participant said this was an opportune moment “where humanity has come back.”

In South Africa, students and educators are taking part in a “big online experiment” when it comes to online teaching. But a participant suggested huge inequalities are visible. The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a medical problem. All around the world, there is a need for cultural and technological institutions to come together, step up, have their voices heard, and shape solutions.

Looking Ahead

There is a crisis of leadership and institutions. There is an opportunity to reassert how societies move forward and build coalitions for transformation. There is a pre-COVID-19 world and a post-COVID-19 world. Cultural and heritage leaders need to harness this moment and not let the crisis go to waste. Culture teaches us what it means to be human, but people in power don’t recognize this concept.

One participant said there were three questions to consider: what are we going to do? How are we going to do what we are going to do? When are we going to do what we need to do? In the discussion, Haroon Rashid’s poem “We Fell Asleep” was brought up to remind others how quickly the world has changed. The virtual meeting they took part in provided space for voices to be heard, to see where we are, where we need to go, and what role Salzburg Global Fellows can play.

Health systems are under pressure, unemployment is rife, and economies are on the brink of collapsing. Asking people to care about the culture and heritage sector at this moment in time may be challenging, suggested one participant in exchanges following the online meeting. But as another countered, “We do not have to wait for people to be concerned. We need to make people concerned.”