Museums in a post-pandemic world

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what life will be like once this pandemic has finished once and for all.  Some people I’ve spoken to think that life will go back to exactly as it was pre-pandemic.  Others, like me, think that we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.  I’m not sure who or what that genie is, but I really don’t think things will ever be the same.

Most of the post-pandemic trend forecasts I’ve read deal with technology and shopping patterns, which are important.  But the most interesting report I’ve read so far isn’t a report as such, but a series of interviews conducted by news agencies around Europe and published in The Guardian newspaper.  The journalists asked fifty people, aged 15 – 25 how the pandemic has “affected their lives, hopes and dreams.”

Several themes reoccur throughout these interviews.  The first is an extremely pessimistic view of the future.  Of the fifty people interviewed, thirty-seven did not feel optimistic about going forward.  This doesn’t seem to be just the despondency of youth.  Their fears are real.  Those who have finished their education worry about finding work.  Others are worried about what the world will be like when they are older.  Claire, an 18-year-old woman finishing her exams in France said, “The future scares me. We are told there will be more pandemics in the years to come, that life could come to a standstill again. I wonder about my life in the long term.”  Anete, a graduate student in Latvia said, “We are heading towards a future that sometimes feels so abstract and apocalyptic that the only hope is that my generation will find the power to fight this battle.”

Luckily, not everyone was negative.  Some used the lockdown as time for introspection.  Ingrid, from Estonia, used the time to educate herself on LGBTQ issues and has resolved some of the issues she’s had with her body image.  Patrizia, from Italy, developed new political and environmental interests and abandoned ones that weren’t doing anything for her, like the piano.

Socially, nearly everyone featured in the article seems to have tired of online experiences.  They want a smaller circle of authentic relationships, rather than the “fake friendships” of social media.  One young woman from Estonia summed it up nicely: “Many teens and young people spend their lives on the internet yet are feeling more isolated than ever.” Most are fed up with online lessons and are looking forward to in-person learning.  Andrea, a student from Sardinia going to university in Rotterdam, said, “Life isn’t in social networks or video calls, it has to be lived.”  Giorgos, an 18-year-old school leaver from Greece, wants to get away from technology, but wonders if that’s possible.  “Although we are used to social media, the internet, our mobile phones and computers, now we cannot stand them anymore. This is a new challenge we have to face: how, in a world where technology is everywhere, can we manage to live by not using it so much?” This is an important question considering the growing role technology has played, and will continue to play, for museums and heritage sites.  Balance is key, but where and how do you strike it?

Politically, climate change was mentioned throughout, as was social, racial, and economic inequality.  Most were worried that the burden of this pandemic, and the years leading up to it, will fall on their shoulders.  Most disturbing, though, was that nearly every one of those interviewed for the article said they felt invisible and that their voices weren’t being heard by those in power.

How can cultural sites and museums take that and use it?

This is a legitimate question because, let’s face it, most museums interpret for small children and adults.  Teenagers and young adults often fall into no man’s land.  That’s a real shame because they are the ones ready for the difficult conversations about even more difficult histories.  They are the ones ready for the more radical (if you will) interpretations about racism, forgotten histories, and colonialism.  They are the ones ready to learn the inspiring stories about those who came before them and made a difference.  They are the ones ready to take these conversations and do something with them – rather than just nod and say, “Well, isn’t that interesting.”

In a recent study about emotions and learning in museums, Paolo Mazzanti states that museums are no longer a place where knowledge is simply transferred from an institution to the public without question; instead, museums are now engaged in “a process of building individual social identity…with the use of new emotional and exciting languages that enhance wellbeing, intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.”

So, what language are you going to use?  How are you going to engage young people?  How are you going to discuss the difficult and sometimes controversial topics with Generation Z?

Words matter.  Use them wisely.


Laura Marshallsay, owner and founder of Marshallsay English, is a public historian and Business English teacher.  She provides language services to the tourism and museum industries. If you have any questions, comments, or if need help with your interpretive program, feel free to contact her at laura@marshallsayenglish.com.

 

 

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