The Future of Museums–A Conversation with the Directors of the Louvre, Hermitage, Guggenheim, and British Museum

Museum lovers, rejoice! To mark International Museum Day, the directors of four of the world’s leading museums had a Zoom conversation about the place of museums in the world, their future, and evolving ways to connect with audiences in reference to the pandemic. I seek out museums everywhere I travel, and these leaders greatly reassured me that the people overseeing some of the world’s largest cultural institutions are in touch with the average visitor, are committed to access for all, and understand the important place in society for all museums no matter their size, scope, or location.

Presented by the Department of Culture and Tourism—Abu Dhabi, “Museums: Places of Civic Engagement, Inspiration and Rebuilding in a Pandemic Age” featured a conversation with Jean-Luc Martinez, President-Director of the Musée du Louvre; Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation; Hartwig Fischer, the Director of The British Museum; and Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage Museum.

Museum directors discussing their roles in the pandemic
Directors of (top row) the Louvre, Hermitage, Guggenheim, (bottom row left) and British Museum, with conversation facilitator Department of Culture and Tourism—Abu Dhabi Chairman HE Mohamed Al Mubarak.
Kids are learning about the origins of hip hop at the Museum of the Musical Instrument in Phoenix, AZ
Kids learning about the origins of hip hop at the Museum of the Musical Instrument in Phoenix, AZ. Photo by Anastasia Mills Healy

Fischer said he believes that “although we are limited in scope right now, this is a global moment” that has strengthened connections with international audiences. Piotrovsky agreed, noting that the Hermitage’s 13 million recent social media visitors came not just for entertainment but for “psychological medicine” that promotes calm and “brings nations and cultures together.”

“People want to be part of that global community,” Fischer said. “Once you cross the threshold of the British Museum there are no foreigners because it’s a world country.”

“Something good that could come out of all this,” Piotrovsky said, is that with new digital access, museums could “overcome the division of society.”

However, Armstrong cautioned that “In the future, there will be two museums: the physical one and the portable one,” and due to a “division of age” certain people will be “overly friendly” with one or the other. To help bridge that divide he said they should be well integrated and that the portable museum should act as an invitation to the physical one.

This is a painting not a photo of Babe Ruth at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Photo by Anastasia Mills Healy

Fischer said that “digital has now grown into yet another dimension and it will keep growing,” but reminded viewers that “at the core of the museum, you as an individual come here and you encounter this one object and it blows your mind and it is a revelation.”

Discussing a physical return to museums, Martinez said that timed tickets will be key, and Armstrong opined that Guggenheim patrons won’t hesitate to return when the doors open. “Inquisitive people often have courage and they are very likely to move around more quickly than other people and that’s our core audience,” he said.

What’s in store for museum visitors? Piotrovsky reported that he had just signed an agreement for the Hermitage to develop an interdisciplinary project where artists write an essay about a painting and then a theatrical piece is created from the essay and performed. “Let’s see if visitors like this combination,” he said. The conversation’s facilitator, Department of Culture and Tourism—Abu Dhabi Chairman HE Mohamed Al Mubarak, offered a Jay-Z and Beyoncé video shot in the Louvre and a subsequent tour the museum created of the works shown in the video as an example of a successful cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration.

Kids at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT.
At the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. Photo by Anastasia Mills Healy.

“In the end, it’s very important that museums keep developing, keep being creative in all parts of the world to facilitate that sharing, cooperation, the open exchange, and make it a reality that the citizens of the world are the real owners of what has survived from the past and what is created in the present,” Fischer said. All agreed with Fischer’s observation: “The digital experience says this is a global collection.”

 

Looking up at Jean Nouvel's spectacular ceiling at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Looking up at Jean Nouvel’s spectacular ceiling at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo by Anastasia Mills Healy.

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