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Museum Marketing: Curating COVID-19 Content

Museums preserve the past, curating the COVID-19 stories that we’ll look back on one day. The recent pandemic will be, well, interesting to look back on, one day. Travelers in the not-so-distant future will be taking a baffled look at images of us in 2020, wearing masks in public, waiting in line for toilet paper, and thinking, “Wow.”

With words like “unprecedented” thrown around to describe it since it befell the world, COVID-19 will be a moment that marked a change in the way we live, work and travel. Museums have a huge opportunity – and responsibility – to preserve this history and its stories.

Sure, it seems early to be thinking about such things while we’re still living through the pandemic, and likely will be for a while. Still, it’s a rare opportunity to capture history in real time instead of looking back later and trying to collect stories and artifacts post facto.

What can museums be doing now to think about curating COVID-19 related exhibits down the line? Will it be about the tragedy? The loss? The positivity? The innovation? A little bit of all of it? There are many routes that museums worldwide will take when addressing the pandemic in the future, but while many museums are still closed, there is a unique chance to prepare now before we can even begin to look back at it all.

Here are five ways that museums might begin processing the pandemic for future programing, curating COVID-19 exhibits once this all passes.

1. Artifacts collected from the pandemic

One of the most obvious ways to preserve the stories of pandemic is through the artifacts that we came to identify with it. Face masks and PPE are among the most obvious choices. It’s easy to imagine a museum case with various masks and protective gear in them, telling the stories of the pandemic’s challenges.

News clippings – while we still have them – are paramount to hold onto, to show what the press was discussing during these turbulent times. These are all obvious and easy artifacts to store and log now while we’re in the throes of the pandemic. Other artifacts like toilet paper may not be so necessary to store at this moment, but thinking about what objects will best personify these few months is key to approaching exhibitions in the future.

2. Objects created in response to COVID

Along the same lines, there are opportunities to highlight the innovative tools and artifacts that developed from the pandemic. Think of the multiple distilleries worldwide that pivoted from liquor to hand sanitizer. Their bottles and creations are unique artifacts that will be a part of this story for future generations.

These “souvenirs” that came out of the pandemic are one-of-a-kind. A company in Rockford, IL, printed tee shirts with local businesses’ logos on them to help support their locals during the lockdown. It seems banal at first, but these innovations will be a big part of the stories we’ll be telling about COVID-19.

3. Art inspired by COVID

Art often comes from a place of pain, and we’ve had a lot of that during the pandemic. It will be interesting to see how artists represent this moment in time in the coming months and years. Banksy already got started!

For art museums, it will offer a chance to highlight local artists, to showcase the work that they have produced. It may even provide the possibility of inviting artists to submit work for special exhibits in the future.

It will, of course, take some time to understand more completely how COVID-19 has affected us all. Art can’t be ordered up like a cheeseburger. Still, this type of thinking now will lay a framework for future exhibits at art museums – especially contemporary ones – where avant garde artists will find a home for their creations.

4. Homages to workers/those lost

While the pandemic may have spurred creativity, it also produced a lot of pain. From the frontline workers who suffered to the countless families who lost loved ones to COVID-19, there is hurt.

Future exhibits can act as homages to these individuals. History museums, galleries dedicated to anthropology, and any cultural institution that can open itself up to this sort of programing will want to consider it. There will be no one spot for a memorial. There is no location that we can gather out to lay a wreath, as there was during 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. This pandemic affected everybody, no matter where they were. Museums will be able to celebrate those people, their sacrifices, and their lives with curated content in the future. Let’s heal first, but museum exhibitions will be a part of that process.

5. Works created by first responders

Some galleries may be willing to get even more creative. While professional artists will no doubt have their take, why not invite first responders or frontline workers to showcase their personal artwork? What did COVID-19 look like to them? By offering an exhibition space to those who normally would not have one, museums will be able to diversify programing in the future.

Think outside the box. How did children view this pandemic? Restaurant owners? The elderly? There are many opportunities to turn this global tragedy into a more positive global conversation if more people have a chance to express themselves.

While we’re focusing on reopening museums before even considering grappling with curating COVID-19 in our exhibitions, hopefully museum marketers and curators can bookmark this post for later. It will be good to plant the seeds now to help guide the thinking of tomorrow.

Struggling with museum marketing efforts following COVID-19? It’s all a bit much right now, we know. DCI has over 60 years of experience helping destinations and cultural institutions with their marketing. Get in touch with Karyl Leigh Barnes at [email protected] to learn more about how we can help.

Written By

Chiara Peretti

As a public relations intern, Chiara has worked with a number of destination clients and has established strong relationships with leading media and digital influencers.

More Articles by Chiara Peretti

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