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UNESCO’s Paris headquarters.
UNESCO’s Paris headquarters.

Covid-19 Impact Reports Say 13 Percent of Museums May Never Reopen

New studies conducted by UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) have found that nearly 13 percent of the more than 85,000 museums across the globe that have shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic may never reopen. Aimed at assessing the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on cultural institutions worldwide, the reports were released on May 18, International Museum Day, and are based on information collected from UNESCO’s 193 member states and eleven associate members.

With 90 percent of museums shuttered, there has been a big push to churn out digital content to keep audiences engaged in institutions’ collections. However, UNESCO learned that only 5 percent of the museums in Africa and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), including Bahrain, Saint Lucia, and Tonga, were able to move their programming online and produce additional digital content.

“Museums play a fundamental role in the resilience of societies. We must help them cope with this crisis and keep them in touch with their audiences,” said UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay. “This pandemic also reminds us that half of humanity does not have access to digital technologies. We must work to promote access to culture for everyone, especially the most vulnerable and isolated.”

The global health crisis has not only caused museums to hemorrhage money—according to the American Alliance of Museums, arts institutions in the United States are losing an estimated $33 million a day—but has also exposed the precarious position of culture workers, especially since payroll accounts are one of the largest expenses for many museums and numerous institutions have made the difficult decision to lay off or furlough employees.

On the current plight of workers in the museum industry, ICOM president Suay Aksoy said: “We are fully aware of and confident in the tenacity of museum professionals to meet the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the museum field cannot survive on its own without the support of the public and private sectors. It is imperative to raise emergency relief funds and to put in place policies to protect professionals and self-employed workers on precarious contracts.”

In order to help museums through this unstable time, UNESCO has also launched the ResiliArt movement and will host a series of debates, panels, and other events to generate discussion about how arts and cultural institutions, organizations, and workers will need to adapt to survive. As indicated in the studies, museums preparing to and begining to reopen will prioritize capacity building, the social protection of museum staff, the digitization and inventorying of collections, and the development of online content, as well as building up their IT teams.