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China – Post Pandemic

Chinese museums set the stage for the post-Covid art experience

An exhibition at the Power Station of Art, Shanghai, China. Photo ©Yi Liu @stevenliuyi via upsplash

As the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to make itself felt all around the world, with various stages – or more accurately, ‘waves’ – being registered in different countries, China has always been a focal point of attention in this latest global development, for reasons that are both fully factual and debatable – a dichotomy that could be said to characterise how we perceive the virus as a whole. But despite the turmoil that surrounds the subject, some inspiring lessons can be learned from the way China’s museums have responded to the crisis – not least because they were the first world population to bear the brunt of it.

According to an informed source from Chinese Museums Association, the response of Chinese museums to the outburst of COVID-19 was “immediate, emphatic and responsible”. The process was early and efficient: as soon as the pandemic was registered as a serious concern in January, the government moved quickly to ensure that museums were closed to the public, “one by one”. “So to minimise the effect of the closures, museums concentrated on remaining relevant and finding out new ways of reaching their audiences, wherever they may be,” the source said.

While the Chinese response has since found counterparts across the globe, it is worth noting that by dint of both necessity and an organised approach to marshalling available resources, they were the ones to seriously set the tone for what was to come.

“In the earliest stages of the process, it was all about promoting the online dimension of the museums – both in terms of exhibitions, and any other showcases and projects that the individual museums would have going on at the time,” the source says. “However, as time went on, and while the pandemic-imposed restrictions were still in place, the museums set about creating online-only material that was tailor-made specifically as a response to the coronavirus pandemic,” they added.

This particular decision was not only a canny business choice; it was fully in tune with the day-to-day realities of how China was made to tackle the still-ongoing health crisis, from their ahead-of-the-curve vantage point. Being on full lockdown for two whole months meant that art lovers were deprived of the best possible way of enjoying the visual arts – the brick-and-mortar museum.

“For this reason, museums did their best to craft programmes that weren’t just of high quality, but that transmitted a sense of comfort and relaxation,” the source said, mentioning live broadcasting as one particularly popular format that gained traction during these difficult months. But legacy was given as much of a platform as novelty, with museums also ‘opening up’ hitherto shuttered parts of their physical spaces and showing off artworks and collections online that the public would not have previously had access to. “Some museums also invited curators to give guided online tours, and present fascinating stories about their collections, exhibitions and the museum venue itself,” the source said.

Offering up an early assessment of the situation – one that they acknowledge would do well to be analysed with more in-depth studies further down the line – the source pinpoints two significant ways in which they’ve seen demographics react to China’s museums adopting more comprehensive approaches to their online presence post-Covid.

“Regular museum goers suddenly gained a renewed appreciation for the museums’ online features and content. They were pleasantly surprised to find how ‘well-stocked’ and presented it all was. On the other hand, a large swathe of non-museum goers did log in, and were intrigued by what they saw,” the source said. “We hope this means that traditional museum goers will emerge from this period with a renewed appreciation of cutting edge approaches that make full use of the online dimension, and that those who have rarely set foot in a museum prior to all this are now more encouraged to do so once they’ve had a chance to sample what’s on offer through the internet,” the source added.

The official numbers we have so far are certainly proof of some kind of early success coming to the fore. In fact, while the rest of the world was still deep into the throes of lockdown, on May 18th China celebrated International Museum Day with no small amount of pomp and pride (albeit with an understandable degree of restrictions still in place), while an encouraging statistic lent a much needed feelgood factor.

“According to the statistics emerging from the National Administration of Cultural Heritage (NACH), in China more than 2,000 online exhibitions and educational projects were extensively accessed by over 5 billion visits while people were confined to their homes,” the source says. This follows on from encouraging trends over the past couple of years, which were also quoted during the International Museum Day celebrations.

“By the end of 2019 we had a total of 5,535 registered museums in China, an increase of 181 museums over 2018. That is one museum per every 250,000 people,” Director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration Liu Yuzhu said during the May 18th ceremony in Jiangsu province, which he attended remotely from Beijing.

“Among those 5,535 Museums, 1,710 museums were private, showing accelerating growth. In 2019, we had 28,600 exhibitions across the country, which attracted 1.2 billion visitors, which included 119 million visitors from private museums. 4,929 museums in China are free and they draw 422 million visitors per year. Free museums enable people who are protected or who come from low income backgrounds to enjoy museums’ rich cultural products equally as others,” Liu Yuzhu added.

Our source from the Chinese Museums Association is also buoyed by the positives of the situation and believes that all visual arts ecologies stand to gain if they respond to the current realities in an agile and intelligent way.

“The crisis has influenced the way museums tend to communicate to their audiences, both in the long and the short term. We are of course, still in the process of figuring out how best to calibrate our strategies to truly turn this crisis into an opportunity. Interestingly, in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is made up of two characters: ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’. A profound philosophy for our times,” they said.

This article was made possible with the help of Sandro Debono

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