Maintaining Momentum in "Quarantime"

In October 2019, what seems like a lifetime ago, I co-presented a session at the SEMC Annual Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, entitled "Maintaining Momentum: How Do We go Beyond One-Time Community Engagement Programs." My co-presenters were Lisa Jevack of the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, and Natalie Sweet of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN. The three of us had met as part of the SEMC Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Team. Natalie and I had worked together on the Action Team's "People and Museums" survey in which we found that programs were the #1 way in which museums attempted to reach new audiences. We were interested in exploring what it meant to go beyond one-time programs and the challenges afforded by weaving work with new audiences (or new mission-relevant themes) into day-to-day curatorial and educational activities. Lisa brought a much-needed art perspective to the topic. The three of us had our university-affiliations in common. 

Six months later, we are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis for modern museums. What it means to "create a program" or "engage audiences" has shifted as we attempt to produce virtual content and move our essential functions online. This very act raises questions around access, equity, and inclusion. Who do we leave out when we move content online? Are we simply attempting to hold onto our existing audiences and friends, or are there ways to build new connections during what I've come to call "quarantime?" How has streaming video and virtual conferencing re-defined the intimacy of a museum encounter? Is informal learning possible without the serendipity of physical space?

All of these questions have vexed us since the advent of the internet. And the role of museums as social spaces and forums for exchange has been debated repeatedly. We define our social importance not only by our current popularity but by our ability to promote continuity-thinking. Despite the constant pressure to innovate and to "stay current," museums' most essential function is reflection. We connect the present with the past. We don't pretend to have all the answers, but we try to offer spaces for people to think before they act.

Threads of Memory exhibit at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education, December 2019
Whether or not we are comfortable in this space, "quaratime" has forced us all to slow down and reflect on the purpose of our work. What is essential? What can be put on hold? What will benefit from re-focus or re-interpretation? The MHHE's introductory exhibit, Threads of Memory, which opened in December 2019, reflects on many of these themes through looking at the period from 1933-1945 as a time when existing threads (people, ideas, events) got tangled up and emerged transformed. Perhaps we're living through another one of those moments. It's too soon to tell what the world will look like on the other side, but museums can continue their work as places for people to stop, and rest, and contemplate. Conclusions will have to wait. "Quarantime" is a perfect opportunity for re-introducing ourselves to the process of inductive reasoning. Now is the time to gather information, to record immediate and temporary impacts, to keep a journal of disruptions and openings, connections and distances. It seems that momentum during this time is precisely that-- no acceleration-- inertia in its purest form.