Digital diplomacy in the midst of (post) pandemic crisis: Inspiring, educating, contributing to global peace and well-being.
Natalia Grincheva, School of Creative Industries, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore
AbstractThis presentation explores opportunities and challenges of digital museum diplomacy developed during the Covid-19 outbreak by surveying and analyzing the best practices and examples of the museum work and activities conducted during the covid-19 pandemic crisis. On the one hand, it will expose how digital museum spaces could provide important sites of cultural diplomacy by fulfilling two important functions of diplomacy: national projection and cultural relations. On the other hand, my presentation will illuminate how online museum programs, developed in response to the (post) pandemic situation and challenges, in fact, continue to enthuse and educate audiences across borders, adhering to ideals of multilateral diplomacy and aspiring to global well-being. Specifically, my research will argue that the pandemic crisis, in fact, facilitated a rapid development and transformation of contemporary museums in line with the principles reflected in the new museum definition proposed by ICOM in 2019, but rejected by the global museum community at the International Congress in Kyoto. First, the analysis of several major museum case studies will demonstrate that under the pressures of the global "digital lockdown", museums are urged to move forward from understanding themselves as specific places, defined by location, architecture and collections to become "inclusive and polyphonic spaces," going beyond their physical and material manifestations. Second, a comparative case study research will reveal how museum diplomacy in the time of the Covid-19 global outbreak provided a platform for the development of a new vision of museums as important actors on the world stage that can "contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing".
Keywords: museum, cultural diplomacy, digital diplomacy, soft power, digital communication
The impact of the Covid-19 global outbreak on museums has been devastating, with many of them shutting their doors to onsite visitors and suspending their local and international activities. The global pandemic drastically disrupted the international programs and long-term strategic plans of many museums, including their traveling exhibitions, object loans, international art residencies, and commissioned work from artists abroad. As the consequences of the pandemic and country lockdowns become more visible, museums are forced to face some harsh questions about their plans for the future. How can they sustain their important activities in international cultural relations and cultural diplomacy given the abrupt decline in their sources of revenue? How can they retain or recover their global visibility, audiences, and communities while they are limited to the digital realm of communications? Before this paper addresses these questions by exploring pandemic-related digital museum practices and trends, it is important to provide some important definitions. First, what is cultural diplomacy and how one can understand or define museum diplomacy? Second, what is museum diplomacy in the digital age and is there a digital museum diplomacy?
Cultural diplomacy and museums
Initially, cultural diplomacy was defined by the U.S. State Department in 1959 as “the direct and enduring contact between people of different nations … to help create a better climate of international trust and understanding in which official relations can operate” (U.S. Department of State 1969, iv). Cultural diplomacy is better known, though, as the “cross-cultural exchanges of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples to foster mutual understanding” (Cummings 2003, 1). It is still mainly understood as an activity initiated by the government, or within the foreign policy agenda of a particular state. However, in the 21st century, cultural diplomacy has expanded its meaning to embrace exchanges and interactions among people, organisations, and communities that take place beyond the direct control or involvement of national governments (Grincheva 2019; Kelley 2014).
Historically, museums have remained key actors of cultural diplomacy, as well as vital hosting spaces of official high-level diplomatic events at which international agreements have been negotiated and signed. “In Europe exporting individual collections of art, as a national policy, had been practiced between monarchs since the Renaissance” (Arndt 2005, 363). Furthermore, exchanges of rare national treasures between monarchs, and eventually multilateral negotiations about cultural property ownership, started with the Napoleonic Wars (Swenson 2016). As educational agencies of “constructing citizenry,” museums have been very effective in projecting their nations’ cultural values and identities (Bennett 1995).
Specifically, museums’ travelling exhibitions, cross-cultural museum loans, and professional exchanges have always empowered rich and diverse museum collections to communicate political messages beyond national borders (Arndt 2005). For example, in the mid-19th century, the Russian Emperor Nicholas I made strategic use of the famous collection at the State Hermitage Museum to display and assert a greater role for an emerging Russia to enter the European state system (Digout 2006). During the Cold War, the Museum of Modern Art in New York was secretly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to export its abstract impressionism collection to the countries in the Soviet bloc as a way of protesting against communism (Cockcroft 1985). Following World War II, the Japanese government also employed national museums as an important tool of cultural diplomacy to rebrand its negative image on the world stage and to send messages of goodwill and openness to other countries (Akagawa 2014).
Museum diplomacy in the digital age
However, in previous centuries, the implementation of cross-cultural exchanges in the world of museums was quite restricted. In a time when travel and communication technologies were quite limited, cross-cultural contact established among museums and their international audiences was a top-down exercise that was controlled and commissioned by national governments. In the contemporary global media environment, these cross-cultural encounters are happening all the time in various online spaces. The “digital age holds the promise of dramatically expanding the reach of interpersonal contact that is at the core of all exchange programs” (Schneider 2010, 103). Online spaces created by museums have become important media channels for projecting cultural and political discourse beyond national borders (Grincheva 2012a, 2012b). At the same time, they promised to provide social spaces for cross-cultural dialogue and negotiations connecting people from different parts of the world (Grincheva 2013). These new digital avenues for international communication reach much wider and more diverse audiences at the global level. Potentially, they can even offer less expensive and even more engaging tools to exercise museum diplomacy in the age of digital interactivity.
Known as digital diplomacy, diplomacy 2.0, or e-diplomacy, diplomatic practices through digital and networked technologies including the internet, mobile devices and social media channels have become increasingly important and popular since the beginning of the new millennium (Melissen 2006). The potential of digital technologies to establish communication in a faster and easier way with a variety of different actors has been recognised by many state governments. Some of them even created new departments in their international relations offices in the early 2000s, to carry out the tasks specifically designed for diplomatic initiatives through digital media. Some examples include the Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State and the Digital Diplomacy Communication Directorate at the Foreign Commonwealth Office in the U.K.
Indeed, the first decade of the new century heralded numerous digital media initiatives that challenged the way in which diplomatic communication had traditionally been conducted. Previously, it was predictable, highly controlled and concentrated in the hands of governments (Hocking et al. 2012). Social media have given the public immediate access to information, as well as offering global broadcast technologies that enable intervention in international flows of political communication. This made contemporary diplomacy multilayered, multidirectional and dispersed among many actors (Jora 2013).
The most ambitious potential that social media promised was the possibility of democratic dialogue that people could shape by taking an active role in world conversations on the most important, urgent, and pressing issues of the day. In the world of museums, social media promised cultural communities the ability to challenge the museum authority as the dominant agency of cultural knowledge creation. Digitised museum collections enhanced with interactive communication components could open new avenues for audiences to voice their opinions and renegotiate their cultural identities (Srinivasan and Huang 2005; Drotner and Schrøder 2014). Increasingly, museum audiences demanded a higher level of inclusion, participation and interactivity, while forces of rapidly accelerating globalisation expanded these demands across cultural and political museum geographies.
Recently published book Museum Diplomacy in the Digital Age has documented the development of the digital museum diplomacy in in the past two decades (Grincheva 2020a). It explored case studies of global online campaigns developed by major museums in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. These cases demonstrated that online museum spaces can serve as virtual avenues for projecting a national interests and perspectives to the world. These online environments are not neutral. They reflect a historical legacy of museums’ milestones, failures, achievements, and developments. Online museum spaces communicate strong messages that complement the cultural and even political agendas of their nation states. Their ability to project the cultural values, traditions, and histories of their respective countries make them important channels of unofficial diplomatic communications to international audiences (Grincheva 2020a).
The book also questioned whether online museum spaces can really establish and sustain cultural relations across borders. It revealed that digital museum diplomacy does require careful collaboration with existing online and offline communities. Museums, as public institutions, can benefit if they invite source and creator communities to share their cultural knowledge, resources, creativity and inspiration with museum professionals. More importantly, by empowering audiences to build their own digital platforms and collections, museums can create a more credible and comfortable online environment that goes beyond mere promotion or propaganda. These digital public spaces can attract international audiences and eventually establish genuine cross-cultural dialogue, which is one of the most important components of cultural diplomacy (Grincheva 2020a).
Amplification of digital museum diplomacy in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic
The global outbreak of the Covid-19 virus has forced museums and galleries worldwide to innovate as never before, opening new opportunities and causing new challenges in developing and executing museum diplomacy. Despite mass closures and tremendous loss of revenue under the pressure of 24/7 digital lockdown, many museums have increased their digital services to reach their audiences, providing new online services. Indeed, many museums reported an increase in online visits, reaching in some cases up to 150% of regular online attendance (NEMO 2020). Museums have been quick to respond to challenges with new digital programming. While some widely experimented with virtual viewing rooms, podcasts and online art classes, others have turned to social media to maintain their connection with the global public through livestreaming of different events.
This paper attempts to survey, reflect upon, and channel these practices to discuss opportunities and challenges of digital museum diplomacy developed during the Covid-19 outbreak. It aims to illuminate how online museum programs, developed in response to the pandemic situation and challenges, in fact, continue to enthuse and educate audiences across borders, adhering to ideals of multilateral diplomacy and aspiring to global wellbeing. Specifically, I argue that the pandemic crisis, in fact, urged and enabled further transformation of contemporary museums in line with the principles reflected in the new museum definition proposed by ICOM in 2019. It defined museums as “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces […] aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing” (ICOM 2019). The new definition was met with significant opposition in the world of museum professionals and ICOM was accused of delivering an “ideological text,” “that would have little legal value” (Grincheva 2020b).
While this is beyond the scope of this work to assess or discuss the quality of the definition to accurately describe a contemporary museum agency, this paper argues that this controversial definition, in a way, predicted a new turn in contemporary museology, instigated by the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic crisis. First, the following section focuses on the spatial dimension of museum diplomacy and demonstrates that under the pressure of the global “digital lockdown” museums strengthened and advanced their digital channels of communication. These channels expanded and widened their virtual representations, transforming museums into more “inclusive and polyphonic spaces,” going beyond their physical and material manifestations. Second, the paper illuminates how museum diplomacy in the time of the Covid-19 global outbreak urged them to engage more deeply with causes and issues of global significance as important actors on the world stage that can “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing” (ICOM 2019).
New channels and spaces of digital museum diplomacy
A museum agency has long been conceptualized as an “imaginary space” or a “museum without walls” (Malraux 1967), especially in light of the “post-museology” theory (Hooper-Greenhill 2000). Understood as “distributed spaces” (Smith Bautista and Balsamo 2013), museums increasingly operate as hybrid institutions existing between physical and virtual worlds. This dual nature of the museum representation and communication has significant implications for cultural diplomacy exercised in the digital age. Most recently, public and cultural diplomacy have progressed algorithmically, empowered by artificial intelligence, data science, natural language processing, augmented and virtual reality (Bjola et al. 2019). These changes are happening rapidly and dynamically. They foster technological innovations that significantly simplify, yet simultaneously complicate, cross-cultural contact between people, communities, and institutions. They also transform cultural and museum diplomacy yet further by offering new channels of communication that include new participants and challenge them with new tasks and endeavors (Grincheva 2020a).
For example, in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, virtual visits to museums have acquired a new level of significance and visibility, even though this is not a new practice, but rather one that was established by museums twenty years ago or even earlier. For example, Google Arts and Culture provides 3D simulator visitor tours based on photos taken by 360-degree cameras in different museums around the world. Even though hundreds of such tours have been available online, they have not been necessarily popular among wider global audiences. In many cases, they fail to provide social and interactive multisensorial experiences that people expect to have during their museum visits in a physical reality. However, during the Coronavirus outbreak and lockdown times these virtual museum platforms presented an important foundation for advancing museum offerings.
For instance, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow offered guided and personalized virtual museum tours as early as in March 2020, as soon as the museum closed its doors to its physical audiences due to the national quarantine restrictions. The Pushkin Museum launched a new online guided tour format with the use of panoramas led by live museum guides. Vladimir Opredelenov, Deputy Director, Information Technology & Chief Information Officer, reported that since the pandemic started the museum experienced “a great demand for guided tours with a real guide” (Grevtsova 2020). Pre-booked tours for small groups of up to forty persons and transmitted live through an online platform with a dedicated curator provide completely new online experiences and can even “generate the feeling that the visit takes place on the museum premises” (Grevtsova 2020).
These practices significantly enrich virtual museum visits offering new avenues for international audiences to connect to museums in a more meaningful way. Similarly, personalized virtual museum visits arranged with the help of telepresence robots expand “museum from home” opportunities for global audiences. A telepresence robot instantly places a visitor at a remote physical location, while providing opportunities to interact with objects and people in a target space through a remote control. Users manipulate robot movements distantly while being able to observe and to hear everything happening on the other end. As an example, during the lockdown, a small gallery in England, Hastings Contemporary, started to use telepresence robots to give “live” tours of the gallery. The museum collaborated with the Bristol Robotics Lab at the University of the West of England who developed videoconferencing robot to offer new museum experiences.
The robot allows a guide and up to five visitors to wander through the galleries at will. Users can zoom in on individual works and explore personalized trails in the museum. This offering proved to be very popular among online audiences; as the museum reported that they were overbooked for these tours during the pandemic lockdown times (Newman 2020). A use of telepresence robots in museums is also not a new practice. They have already been used by museums in the past, starting as early as 2014, but for different purposes. While earlier these practices had a strong agenda on increasing museum accessibility, especially to people with disabilities, the pandemic crisis redefined these narrow functions of tele-visits. It offered a new channel for international audiences to engage with museums and their heritage collections also reinforcing the “distributed” nature of a contemporary museum that exists at the edge of its physicality and virtuality.
Another hybrid museum practice that augmented its scope and reach during the pandemic crisis, its livestreaming of educational events, curators lectures, and special events. For instance, in the midst of the pandemic crisis, dozens of museums in China, including the National Museum of China, the Dunhuang Academy and the Nanjing Museum, livestreamed their programming and tours on popular online platforms like TikTok and Kuaishou (the latter is the leading short video social media channel in China with 170 million daily users.) The Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported that during the Spring Festival in 2020 museums across the country livestreamed more than 2,000 exhibitions online, attracting over 5 billion visits (CD 2020). The Palace Museum in Beijing, also known as the Forbidden City, has held several live stream guided tours broadcasted on CCTV news, attended by 10 million viewers from around the world and #FirstLiveofPalaceMuseum2020 gained over 100 million views (CD 2020).
The livestreaming format that received such a high popularity especially among Chinese audiences offered a new channel for bilateral museum diplomacy, exercised by Western museums. A good example of this strategy is a highly successful livestreaming tour of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London to Chinese audiences that took place in August 2020. V&A communicated to its Chinese audiences through local social media since 2018. Back then it launched its WeChat account and established its Weibo profile, currently followed by 86,069 users, and even opened a store on e-commerce platform Tmall. In 2020 V&A became the first overseas museum to launch an official account on the Chinese livestreaming platform Kuaishou (Li 2020).
The V&A provided a virtual gallery-travel for Kuaishou’s users broadcasted in Chinese language through a two-hour-long livestreaming special museum tour. It attracted almost 4 million people and generated more than two hundred thousand likes (Campos 2020). Viewers of the V&A’s Kuaishou tour were guided by the museum’s Chinese social media consultant Lang Xiao and the Curator of the Asian Department Xiaoxin Li. The tour included the walk through the John Madejski Garden, Tippoo’s Tiger, the China Gallery, Cast Courts, and Fashion Gallery, inviting audiences for an exciting exploration of the museum’s diverse collections. It also engaged online visitors through interactive online quizzes and rewards of museum souvenirs offered by the V&A’s Tmall flagship store. Li explained that most recently the livestreaming format has become a very popular form of communication and entertainment in China. “We really tried to embrace this format that, in fact, provides a much richer multisensorial experience than communicating museum collections through images and text” (Li 2020).
Moreover, the curator stressed that in a physical tour, a museum can involve maximum 30 people, and in the case of a livestreaming, the scope of the audience reaches millions of viewers who can connect from a different part of the world. “Beyond statistics,” Xiaoxin shared, “I am impressed by the audience’s genuine interest in such a virtual museum tour, because it’s not like watching a movie and you want to be on the site to get immersed in a space … and it strikes me that people are so strongly engaged in these livestreaming experiences and stay connected online for several hours” (Li 2020).
In terms of the diplomatic implications, these meaningful engagements among Chinese communities and the UK cultural institutions provide a robust platform to address urgent tasks on the foreign policy agenda of both countries, who are trying to overcome public distrust on two sides toward each other. According to the recent research conducted by the British Foreign Policy Group, “the coronavirus pandemic lit a fire under the urgency of such an endeavor”, steadily hardening the relationships between the UK and China and instigating the urge to strengthen important cultural and economic partnerships between both parties (BFPG 2021). Some of these repercussions are the disruptions of cultural dialogues, the restricted global exchange of artists and curators, plus the delay or the termination of collaborations. In this regard, V&A livestreaming activities offering exclusive explorations of the museum and its heritage collections in Chinese language, is “a good way for improving the image of Western institutions in the eyes of Chinese audience” (Li 2020).
As Li shared, “Chinese perceptions towards the UK museums, particularly those who possess Chinese objects, are biased,” due to many reasons, including controversial repatriation concerns and misunderstanding of the Western museology concept and philosophy (Li 2020). She explained that Chinese visitors are usually disappointed with the display and treatment of Chinese authentic objects, which in their opinion are presented as cargo or as a mere trophy in Western museums. However, through livestreaming engagements the museum can “demonstrate that objects are treated with care and respect by museum curators who can represent well the Chinese heritage and who understand well the Chinese culture” (Li 2020). By doing a virtual tour and answering audiences’ questions live, Li stressed, it is possible to explain a specific curatorial logic and a hard work behind the scenes on heritage preservation along with the museum philosophy and vision.
A livestreaming form presents a new, growing-in-popularity trend for transmitting museums’ collections and treasures to mass audiences in a more engaging way, that brings multimillion audiences to a virtual museum space. This further expands the understanding of a role and place of a museum in a contemporary society. Albeit being physically bound, a museum acquires new virtual channels and avenues for communicating its collections to local and increasingly international audiences that transform it into a more “inclusive and polyphonic space.” However, the pandemic did not only urge museums to experiment with new digital formats that expanded further their virtual borders. It also engaged them further with global issues and planetary concerns and causes that effect societies across various cultural, political, and economic contexts. These shifts transform museum diplomacy from an exercise in traditional national projection into multilateral global diplomacy.
Global museum diplomacy: From national projections to transnational museology addressing issues of “human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing”
The paradigm of national promotion has been especially important, and it has strongly shaped international communication practices since the formation of the “modern state” or the “Westphalian state.” This period was marked by processes such as setting and strengthening strict political, economic, and cultural boundaries among territories belonging to different nations (Batora and Hocking 2008, 4). The universal expositions (also known as world’s fairs) that started to take place in Europe from the 19th century onwards offer an evocative example of states’ efforts in national projections (Anholt 2007). These expositions engaged countries in the global competition “for economic modernity, social equilibrium, and political stability” to construct their national representations, to strengthen “ideological alliances, set international or domestic agendas, and to facilitate culture transfer” (Kaiser 2004, 46).
Reinforced in the 20th century, national projection remained a dominant diplomatic paradigm that defined how nation states constructed their identities in the international arena and communicated with other countries (Habermas 2001, 69). In the 21st century, the national promotion paradigm of cultural diplomacy has culminated in nation branding. It is a strategic form of international communication to “‘sell’ particular aspects of a nation to foreign publics” (Fitzpatrick 2010, 90). As “national expressions of identity” (Macdonald 2003, 3), museums have historically played a key role in promoting national ideologies and constituting citizenry (Bennett 1995; Karp 1991; Luke 2002; Pearce 1995). The strong power of museum objects to “stand for the nation” has been instrumental in the articulation of culture and national values on the global stage. However, globalization, as some scholars point out, gave rise to a new “ideological dimension” in international politics, which added new layers of social and cultural “norms, claims, beliefs, and narratives,” defining the communicative behavior of nation states confronted with new economic and political realities in the global arena (Steger 2009, 11).
Under the pressure of global environmental, humanitarian, and social and cultural challenges, diplomacy has acquired a new level, where cross-cultural negotiation and problem solving go beyond exclusively national interests. Some scholars identify a “new dimension” of diplomacy that is placed within a cosmopolitan framework of interests and values, shifting diplomatic outreach to a transnational agenda (Rivas 2010; Villanueva 2010). British diplomat Harold Nicolson stressed, “the progress of diplomatic theory has been from the narrow conception of exclusive tribal rights to the wider conception of inclusive common interests” (Nicolson 2004, 17). Beck (2001) also argues that globalization produced “a shift from autonomy based on national exclusion to sovereignty based on transnational inclusion” (87).
A cosmopolitan framework in diplomatic communication stresses transnational ties and constructs an image of the country as a diligent, collegial, and responsible “global citizen” that actively contributes to the collaborative efforts of the international community to solve common problems and invests national human and economic resources in addressing global problems (Hoffman 2006). In application to museum practices, aspirations of the global multilateral diplomacy make sense in the framework of so called “transnational museology” (Goff 2017; Mason 2013). “Transnational” museum narratives can reflect truly global perspectives, going far beyond the borders of national or regional diversity, to address difficult and uncomfortable colonial legacies.
For example, in the recent decades the international museum community has experienced a raise of a “universal” museum, a movement pioneered by such internationally recognized institutions as the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan. In 2002, along with other 13 institutions from Europe and North America, they signed the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” which stressed a unique role of these museums “in cultivating a better comprehension of different civilizations and in promoting respect between them” (MacGregor 2004). This declaration elevated the status of the museums from national to global institutions with an authority to represent all cultures and civilizations. The colonial past and heritage of the majority of these museums place them in the center of transnational exchanges and practices of material and intellectual acquisitions associated with objects collected from around the world.
Within the museum collections, these artifacts from different civilizations, cultures and histories are “continually subjected to new […] meanings,” assigning “encyclopedic” status to museums, claiming to embrace the history of humanity in its cultural wealth and diversity (Meyer and Savoy 2014, 7). The Declaration of Universal Museums was criticized in academic scholarship and accused of being a mere rhetorical alibi for museums abdicating their responsibilities to repatriate the material artifacts of which the ownership is contested (Gorman 2011). As many scholars reveal, though these “universal museums” are “global” in terms of scope and geography of their collections as well as their international visibility, presence, and recognition, they fail to promote a universal vision that can communicate messages beyond “imperial superiority” (Lewis 2004; O’Neill 2004).
However, the origin of these discourses in global cosmopolitan diplomacy seems to have a little relevance to the movements that took place in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. The following examples illustrate that the pandemic outbreak set a powerful global context in which important processes of museum decolonization started to unfold under the pressure of the international public discourse amplified through digital channels of communication. A good illustration of the impact of coronavirus global challenges on the messages of museum diplomacy across countries is the Black Lives Matter movement, which not only challenged museums in the USA, but also significantly affected museums in other countries. Global Black Lives Matter campaigns emerged from the local mass protests against police brutality in Minneapolis in response to George Floyd death instigating concerns of racial injustice and inequalities.
“Washington DC, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Bristol, and New York City – home to some of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries – have also seen large numbers of people taking to the streets to demonstrate against perceived police brutality and systematic injustice” (Charr 2020). The Black Lives Matter movement urged many museums to face again long-standing uncomfortable conversations about the colonial pasts of museums which in many cases served imperialistic power structures operating “on the economics of slavery.” In the UK, the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and International Slavery Museum in Liverpool supported public protests against racial injustice and the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, erected to celebrate a 17th-century slave trader. They expressed their position openly on social media and the Bristol Museum even turned its lights purple to demonstrate its support of public protests taking place in Minneapolis.
In France, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, Director of the Musée du Quai Branly, made a public announcement about the museum’s commitments to “restore at least some of the cultural heritage the museum has to sub-Saharan Africa” (Charr 2020). In the USA, Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando started to collect protest signs, from photographs to media posts, videos and face masks, to preserve the history “of political upheaval in America” (Sayej 2020). Likewise, the National Museum of American History in Washington expanded their political history collection adding artefacts from protests happening in Lafayette Square and attempts to remove the Statue of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States from 1829 to 1837. “Lafayette Square is our backyard” curator Tsione Wolde-Michael stressed, “and it’s indicative of what’s happening across the country” (Sayej 2020).
The Anacostia Community Museum in Washington turned to digital technologies to document the history of public movements through their #MomentsOfResilience project, a digital archive of community stories to voice concerns from marginalized communities. “It’s a digital storytelling initiative where we ask community members to share stories, videos, and photos of how they are being resilient during this time of the pandemic,” said the museum director, Melanie Adams. “Then we shifted to include the protest as well. By being digital, we can collect the stories in the moment” (Sayej 2020). The University of St. Thomas has even created a virtual museum, the Urban Art Mapping George Floyd & Anti-Racist Street Art database. Within a couple of months from the opening, this crowdsourcing campaign received over a thousand of public submissions, documenting the live history of street protests through stories and pictures (Feiger 2020).
Many museums across countries expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, especially on social media. However, they have been severely criticized for their rather “performative” acts of solidarity that could be better framed as practices of slacktivism rather than real actions to combat racial oppression, injustice, and inequality. “Many of these predominantly white museums,” Murawski (2020) stressed, “have been called out for their superficial and performative acts,” SFMoMA, the Guggenheim, the Met, or the Nelson Atkins Museum, to name just some of them. Public comments on social networks responding to museums’ official statements questioned whether these museums could really commit to transform themselves and the society to battle against systematic racism and oppression of black communities.
These uncomfortable conversations, though, taking place in social media urged museums to take first steps toward institutional transformations. Yinka Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, for example, is convinced that “the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests are the beginning of a new movement that will see change in society” (Gompertz 2020). “What we are witnessing is a huge shift in perception,” the Director of the British Museum also shared, “and racism needs to be addressed but change doesn’t take place overnight” (Gompertz 2020). Professor Dan Hicks, Senior Curator at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, the leading voice in the country who calls for the restitution of contested cultural objects held in the UK’s museums also indicated:
“There’s a generational shift going on around arts and culture and heritage. It was acceptable, maybe a generation ago, to talk about loans and facing up to Empire, using these objects to tell the story better. There’s a new generation now who really don’t buy that – who see the museum as an end point as an outdated idea. In no part of arts and culture should we think that our museums are unable to evolve and to change.” (Gompertz 2020)
For example, Sara Wajid, the Head of Engagement at the Museum of London and a member of Museum Detox, a network of museum professionals of color, took the upheaval of the Black Lives Matter movements to raise concerns about a quite low diversity among curators and upper management staff in Western museums, which is especially critical in cases when museums possess treasures from African communities. Black Lives Matter forced some UK museums to address these questions more actively and involved them into “serious and unusually frank conversations” between Detox network members and many white leaders with regards to anti-racism and steps to be made to decolonise museums (Gompertz 2020).
One could question the impact of these conversations to trigger real changes in museums. However, the latest appointment at the Guggenheim Museum of Naomi Beckwith to serve as Deputy Director and Chief Curator, offers a convincing evidence that important transformations are happening in response to global public protests and voices raised in support of black communities. This major appointment comes three months later after Nancy Spector step down from the position amid accusations of racism from Chaédria LaBouvier, a former guest curator of the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition (Yates 2021). The Guggenheim’s post of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter triggered hardened conversations and thousands of reposts and comments from the black artists community who accused Guggenheim in racial injustice to artists and curators of color.
While the internal investigation conducted by Guggenheim cleared Spector of wrongdoing, she left the museum after almost 34 years of dedicated work. “I would not have taken this position if I did not feel the museum wasn’t doing that healing work, which they are,” the new deputy Beckwith, shared, “What I heard clearly from Richard [Armstrong, the Director of Guggenheim,] is they are doing the work themselves. They’re simply looking for a partner in that… Now it’s clear that a museum’s job is not to just preserve art history, but to preserve multiple art histories” (Yates 2021). This is a quite inspiring evidence of change that promises a gradual transformation of museums into more diverse and inclusive institutions that celebrate human dignity, support social justice and global equity. These shifts in diplomatic discourses also concern museum programs and activities developed by many institutions around the world to support “planetary wellbeing.”
For example, hundreds onsite and online exhibitions devoted to the hardship and health issues representing Covid-19 times have been installed in the past months around the world. The focus and key topics covered by these exhibitions range from merely recording the impact of the virus on local communities through crowdsourcing symbolic objects, to informing people about pandemic diseases and viruses, to spreading awareness about immunization against Covid-19, to counter uncertainty or misinformation, to simply supporting the moral well-being of people in this challenging times. The National Museum of Singapore, the Historical Museum of Urahoro in Japan, the Moscow Museum in Russia, the House of European History in Brussels, the V&A Museum in London, or the Chicago History Museum in the USA, to name but a very few, engaged very actively in developing their current exhibitions and programming around the pandemic issues, educating, informing, supporting, and encouraging their online and (in rare cases) onsite visitors in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
This global trend in museum diplomatic practices concerning “planetary well-being” widens and deepens museums’ curatorial programming, re-shifting the key focus from the past to the current moment in human life by casting a different look at everyday objects. As Alexandra Lord, Chair and Curator of the Medicine and Science Division at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. shared that the museum did not collect objects from the 1918 flu pandemic because “people wanted to forget it, but that was a mistake the institution won’t repeat” again (Calvert 2021). This statement demonstrates that museums rapidly respond to critical and urgent issues of the day, stepping to the forefront of debates and practices addressing humanitarian concerns and challenges of global significance.
This paper attempted to trace new meanings, trajectories, and avenues in museum diplomacy emerging under the pressure of the global Coronavirus outbreak. It provided examples that point at changes happening on two levels of museum international communications, in terms of the spaces and formats as well as in terms of key meanings, messages and narratives developed under the pressure of global digital lockdown. While these examples are indicative of global trends and transformations affecting museum diplomacy across countries, the paper did not address the dark side of the cyberspace that also affects museums and their diplomatic commitments and projects executed online. For instance, most recently, we have witnessed the rise of new disinformation and propaganda tools, like bots, and fake news that significantly disrupt the flow of global information exchanges and accelerate anxiety, negative sentiment, and cross-cultural misunderstanding among online audiences. Recent studies have found, for instance, that the use of computational propaganda by international and domestic actors has succeeded in re-shaping the media ecosystems of various countries, primarily by amplifying the power of agenda setting, priming, and framing of the more vocal or radical groups (Bjola and Pamment 2018).
The new context might add extra pressure on museums to alter multicultural programs in favor of classical or more national focused culture art. It might also prompt museums to become more determined in helping (online) audiences receive guidance in addressing misconceptions (Maley and Wayer 2020). The current digital environment of cross-cultural communication raises, therefore, multiple concerns about personal and institutional privacy, online aggression, digital disinformation, as well as about the presence of surveillance technologies and illegal personal data collection for commercial or political benefit. Future research should concern and explore further these new challenges of digital museum diplomacy, paying attention to new actors, new tools, and a new agenda of diplomacy shaped by the pandemic crisis.
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