Museums in a brave new Covid-19 world


Alvin Tan For The Straits Times


PublishedJun 26, 2020, 5:00 am SGT


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Museums in Singapore start to reopen to the public from today, to a new reality

2020 has turned out to be an annus horribilis for museums as well as the arts and culture sector. As Covid-19 spread across the globe, museums found themselves confronted with plummeting visitorship numbers and unprecedented revenue losses.

By April, almost all the museums around the world were closed, according to a report released by the International Council of Museums. Likewise, a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation painted an equally dire picture, with 90 per cent of museums worldwide closing their doors and more than 10 per cent indicating that they may never reopen again.

Like many other cities, Singapore is cautiously reopening its economy. Singapore museums will reopen to the public in phases from today, subject to safe management measures to ensure the safety of employees and visitors.

As in the case with many other museum authorities and museums around the world, the National Heritage Board (NHB) has found the experience of dealing with Covid-19 a transformative one, forcing us to adopt new ways of doing things.


For example, with museum closures and more people spending more time online, many museums have pivoted to the digital realm to remain digitally open while physically closed. This has resulted in an unprecedented buffet of “click-as-much-as-you-can-consume” digital content.

The Network of European Museum Organisations reported that four out of five museums in Europe have increased their digital services, while an Art Fund survey in Britain revealed that 86 per cent of their museums and galleries have increased their online presence and content.

In Singapore, the Indian Heritage Centre, the Malay Heritage Centre and the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall were first off the starting block, using their collections to offer Covid-19-related tips, present online exhibitions, organise stay-home challenges, provide digital docent tours, et cetera.

Likewise, the National Museum of Singapore launched a virtual tour of its special exhibition with both guided and self-exploratory options, while the ArtScience Museum offered video tours of its exhibitions. Other museums such as the National Gallery Singapore and the Singapore Art Museum have also rolled out curator’s talks, online performances, DIY (do-it-yourself) activities and so on.

According to a Digital Consumer Survey conducted by NHB last month and comprising 269 respondents, NHB’s digital offerings successfully reached out to 43.5 per cent new audiences (that is, users who had never consumed NHB’s digital content before) during the circuit breaker period.

A collection officer dusting a rickshaw at the National Museum of Singapore on Tuesday, in preparation for the museum’s reopening today. The writer says that with still no end in sight to the Covid-19 pandemic, museums will have to not only find ways to overcome the public’s ”safer-at-home” mentality and ensure public safety at all times – but also come up with a ”back-to-business” model that makes economic sense. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

On a more encouraging note, 87.4 per cent of survey respondents agreed that NHB’s digital offerings have made them more interested in visiting our museums, while 79.9 per cent agreed that NHB’s digital offerings have uplifted their spirits.

It would be interesting to note if the findings remain consistent as the sample size grows in the subsequent waves of the survey, which will be conducted this month and the next, and as NHB and our museums continue to roll out digital initiatives post-circuit breaker.


Despite the efforts of museums to stay digitally connected with their audiences, the question of who will return and who will stay away, and what will make visitors feel reassured enough to return are immediate concerns on the minds of museum directors everywhere.

The new museum-going experience is likely to rely even more heavily on technology as museums move towards online reserve-ahead ticketing systems, virtual queues, contactless payments and so on.

According to research published by IMPACTS Research & Development, audiences in the United States intend to return to their more usual attendance behaviours within three months.

Unsurprisingly, the research has revealed that demand is also being redistributed towards cultural organisations and experiences that feature outdoor spaces and/or allow for relative freedom of movement.

As such, museums are generally expected to fare better as compared with enclosed performance spaces due to the increased “perceptual risk” of contracting Covid-19 for the latter.

However, studies have revealed that while the public is comfortable visiting museums and galleries, the majority remains uncomfortable about using interactive exhibits and features.

Overall, while there may be pent-up demand for museum visits as audiences yearn to reconnect directly with art, it is likely that the museum-going market will remain highly cautious, at least in the first few months, as the general public adjusts from nationwide efforts to flatten the Covid-19 curve to living life under the curve.


As museums worldwide reopen their doors, some countries such as Singapore are adopting a phased approach with staggered museum reopenings. However, with still no end in sight to the pandemic, museums will have to not only find ways to overcome the public’s “safer-at-home” mentality and ensure public safety at all times – but also come up with a “back-to-business” model that makes economic sense.

This is because the operating costs of reopening museums are likely to remain the same as before Covid-19 (and in some cases, possibly higher in view of the implementation of safe management measures) while ticket revenues and profits from retail and food and beverage offerings will remain at an all-time low.


As museums reopen, one thing is certain – they will be greeted by a new and challenging operating environment where museum and gallery capacity will be drastically reduced.



In Singapore, museums will reopen to a visitor capacity reduced to 25 per cent; Beijing and Borneo to 30 per cent; Abu Dhabi to 40 per cent; and Dubai to 50 per cent.

With travel restrictions and the need to watch the bottom line, there has been speculation in the museum world that it may be time to bid goodbye to imported blockbuster exhibitions. Instead, museums are expected to bring more of their collections out from storage, to “think, curate and show local” and to shine the spotlight on the treasures already in their possession.

The new museum-going experience is likely to rely even more heavily on technology as museums move towards online reserve-ahead ticketing systems, virtual queues, contactless payments and so on.

It is also likely to be characterised by the use of hands-free or zero-touch technology such as switch mats, voice-or gesture-based tools and proximity-based activations.

It is undeniable that the road to recovery for museums will be long and hard. Even when a vaccine is found for Covid-19, we will not be able to completely pandemic-proof our museums against future threats.



Still, a few good things have come out of the pandemic. First, it has demonstrated that museums are resilient entities that are able to improvise and reinvent themselves by pushing their collections online, launching viral social media campaigns, taking fund-raising online and offering free collections or institution-based content.

Second, museums have also proven themselves to be both resourceful and a resource, and shown how they contribute to the well-being of the community by alleviating the challenges of confinement, reducing social isolation and boosting national morale.

Alvin Tan is deputy chief executive (policy and community) at the National Heritage Board.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2020, with the headline ‘Museums in a brave new Covid-19 world’. Print Edition | Subscribe

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