Looking backwards whilst looking forward

I’ve got to hand it to the museums and heritage sector.

Never again let it be said that they are merely storehouses of fusty objects periodically gathering dust. In a time when looking back is, frankly, the last thing any of us want to do (just focus on the end of lockdown…and repeat), museums have somehow found a way to simultaneously look backwards to their collections, and forwards, by turning them all digital and dragging them into a virtual future. Bravo.

As I write this, on the evening of the VE Day celebrations, I’ve seen mass Lindy Hopping from English Heritage, YouTube messages from Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museums have produced ‘soundscapes’ – first hand accounts of the people who were there on the actual day 75 years ago, digitised from their sound archive.

Thank god for the internet. The sector has long been aware of its potential; utilising it more, year on year – particularly where the aim is accessibility. Their biggest challenge will come later on in the year when the full impact of Covid-19 will be realised. Even when sites and buildings are able to re-open, the months of lost revenue are likely to change the landscape of the sector permanently.

It would be a shame if business resumed as normal when the potential for digital interpretation has been unleashed, but these are currently (as far as I can see) a free offering – bonus content used to enhance their tangible collections. Could these digital offerings be…dare I say it…monetised in some way? Could they help to bridge the revenue gap from lost lockdown trading? Gah…there I said it.

Obviously this goes against every fibre in my ‘anti-commodification of heritage’ body, but even I know that these spaces need to generate X amount in order to cover the Y amount needed to keep them from going under. But, when you’ve generated nothing (in what should be peak season)…well, desperate times etc. etc. I’m not for a second suggesting that digital collections come anywhere close to substituting the real, deal, actual heritage, by the way – but its an interesting proposition.

Whatever happens, I’ll be curious to see how the sector weather’s the next 6 months, and what forward-thinking they can employ to keep themselves afloat. I, for one, will be watching this (museum) space…