by William Stupp

Museums, particularly grand historic ones like the Mauritshuis and the Rijksmuseum, have long been criticized as being cloistered ivory towers. In 1971 Duncan Cameron launched a discussion that has gripped the art world ever since: should museums be more akin to haughty temples cared for by dogmatic priests, or raucous and secular public forums which thrive off debate? Regardless of one’s position on the matter, for eleven weeks Dutch museums were undeniably exclusive, having shut their doors in obedience to social distancing regulations. On June 1st, museums across the Netherlands reopened.

Considering the prolonged closure, new emphasis on online resources, and long-standing complaints from some quarters about accessibility, the reopening of museums raises questions about the future of art institutions.

Like workplaces, social groups and other parts of the cultural sector, museums have had to adapt to the new socially-distant world. No one knows how long this will last.  In private conversations and in the media, people are speculating about the lasting impact of the pandemic.

Museums Go Online

For one, museums have accelerated their efforts to engage digitally with the public since the shutdown. More than merely upping their social media game, art museums the world over have made large portions of their collections viewable for free online. 

In a lucky coincidence, the Mauritshuis hired two new employees earlier this year to develop the institution’s online presence. A virtual press conference announcing the results of research into the museum’s most famous painting, Vermeer’s Girl With Pearl Earring, was well-received. Details of the findings were published on the Mauritshuis website.

We have realized as a museum that you can do a lot more online than we did before,” said Boris de Munnick, the museum’s press officer. “[Many museums] are now presenting themselves as online platforms.”

No one can say whether this reconceptualization will endure, but it is nevertheless worth exploring. What will become of museums in a socially-distanced and digitized age?

New Technologies, Same Questions

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin penned “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” in 1935. In the essay, Benjamin ponders the implications of recent technological advances on art and society. He saw that new developments had radically changed how artists worked, what they made, and the way art was conceptualized, exhibited and politicized by the public. In our pandemic-stricken world of unfettered viral reproduction, might the art world again be on the precipice of a new age? I headed to the Mauritshuis on its reopening day to explore this question.

At museums, people are used to being told what to do. Critics lambaste museums for precisely this: their supposed gatekeeping and elitism. Such critics say that self-confident institutions tell students, artists and the public what art is good through their choices of what to exhibit, and, when they feel like it, explain why in the pithy little texts which accompany selected works. On a less conceptual level, visitors have always been made to obey restrictions on where they can stand, how loud they can talk and what bags they can carry with them.

Because we are used to being self-conscious about the space between our bodies and valuable objects, museums can be easily adapted to meet the requirements of social distancing. Unlike supermarkets, banks or public squares, museums have always told us where we can and can’t go. The tape and arrows which now cover sections of the floor at the Mauritshuis are nothing new. They are merely an expansion of the velvet rope, floor lines and signs forbidding photography that have always been there.

At the reopened museum, obeying the commands about each room’s maximum occupancy comes naturally. The temple has new rules; it feels even less like a forum than it did before. If that is not itself a problem, I see no issue with visiting museums under the new, more distant paradigm. The shoe fits.

The Museum in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In the decades since Benjamin’s essay, reproduction has become exponentially easier. Most people use their smartphone to take and share pictures, including photographs of artworks exhibited at the museums they visit. Despite never-ending debates about authenticity and the relative merits of seeing an original work versus a reproduction, millions still flocked to the world’s great museums. 

Until recently, that is. Museums are still closed in many countries but, because of institutions’ recent digital dash, accessing high-quality reproductions has never been easier or more rewarding. This raises the question: why bother going outside, paying for a ticket and acquiescing to evermore rules when you can see it all at home? Museums themselves are emphasizing the benefits of seeing art online. Will this come back to haunt them if, after the pandemic, the public takes the message to heart and ticket sales dwindle to a trickle of purists?

Some might say that this would be fine. Stuffy museums take a financial hit as they are forced to be more inclusive to a wider public. For the critic of museums as institutions, it seems like a win-win. But if museums become primarily online platforms for the long-term, will they be able to cope financially? If borders remain shut, might it become impossible to loan artworks? Will they struggle to properly store and restore artworks? Is restoration even necessary when reproductions exist? Similar questions have been asked for decades. No definitive answers have been found. Yet after months spent at home, seeing the Mauritshuis’ masterpieces in person was certainly a breath of fresh air, an experience far superior to any virtual tour.

De Munnick is optimistic. The Mauritshuis is, for now, operating at full staff. No employees were laid off. He believes online and physical visits can complement each other, highlighting the outpouring of support the museum received during the closure alongside the 1750 tickets sold in the six days since they went on sale. Noting the museum’s 200th birthday coming up in 2022, he is confident that though the Mauritshuis might change, it will survive as a museum. “The collection is so inspiring and important,” he said. “The Mauritshuis will be here long after we close our eyes and leave the earth.”