A museum is defined as a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited. But outside of this classification, museums and galleries can mean so much more. Museums in Ireland from the IMMA to the National Gallery gave their viewers the chance to interact with their collections online throughout the coronavirus lockdown. They let us reflect on the everyday experience of the museum and rediscover its value from its absence. Artistically minded or not, museums act as a cosmos for people to engage and interact with colour, shape, light, tone, mood and thus, a parallel universe of artistic directions, challenges, and emotions. From what the museum provides, we can see the value that lies within the viewer’s experience, not just the objects it displays.
Many people think galleries and museums hold a level of prestige and exclusivity; thus, it is surprising to see how many people missed these cultural institutions throughout Ireland’s lockdown. Unexpectedly, collectors pushed behind their screens on online auctions, to bid way above their price ranges, producing some of the highest values on online auctions ever. This was seen during the selling of Ivan Aivazovsky’s The Bay of Naples during lockdown, reaching just under $3m (€2,535,585) on Sotheby’s website. So even though the fine art market has wobbled through a time of instability, this must be a positive sign for what auctioneers can expect in the future.
In Ireland, a country rich in culture, museums and galleries experienced a surge of online viewers leading them to produce a large array of virtual tours, exhibitions, and insights into their private conservation work. Art was clearly missed, if not to bid and to buy, then to browse and experience the authentic museum viewing.
Before Covid-19, people of all ages could be seen rummaging through gift shops and chatting over tea in a gallery café. The significance of these places for people’s everyday routines and the power that they hold to provide a sense of place, a sense of purpose, and within this, a strong sense of belonging, must be recognized. Thankfully, museums have welcomed the restrictions, adapting to their demands, and giving people back their ability to engage physically with art. This is a good sign for people who are of the “cocooning” ages because while they are vulnerable to infection, they are also vulnerable to mental distress, especially if they are told to stay indoors for long periods of time by themselves. In this case, museums and galleries provide an artistic getaway, so people can revisit their daily routines while Covid-19 prevention measures will be strictly monitored.
However, history has shown us that crises often help us to generate new ideas in artistic expression and through multiple platforms. The products of the pandemic are displayed through multiple exhibitions and performances such as the Lace, Paint, Hair exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland. These have helped various generations to start thinking creatively, especially on social media. Myself especially, performances, plays, literature, exhibitions, and online viewings have helped me to make more sense of the current madness. If not to understand it, then to simply accept it.
Some of us are slowly trying to accept our current situation and now more than ever museums can provide a place of escapism. You only need to enter the European wing of the national gallery, to notice its natural light and high ceilings, offering a skylit room for your thoughts to take flight. Even though we now see some changes to our visits, a face mask put on and a 2 metre social distance, the enjoyment felt in such a rewarding space will not change. It will forever remain a place of peace, creativity and for many, a place for expression. Museums are already changing and growing for our safety, so can restaurants, so can churches and as people, so can we. Whilst change can often seem unmanageable, it is never impossible.
More than ever, we are now seeing the value of the museum and gallery in a time of chaos and the people who visit these places are just as vital as the artwork that hangs on the wall. While cultural institutions are essential for the creation of a nation’s identity, these creative spaces are also made for the ordinary experience of artistic discovery and imagination. In the context of our Irish museums, they offer us space to exchange our ideas, to think about our problems and to connect with a place of authenticity.