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Evolving doors – how Covid has accelerated changing role of museums

The first day back after lockdown at the Ulster Museum. Picture: Hugh Russell
Kathryn Thomson

THERE have been many times over the past 18 months where the challenges that we have had to navigate have felt like an endurance test – not just for National Museums NI but for society at large.

Throughout this period – even with our doors closed - we knew we had the make the most out of our circumstances and do our utmost to maintain positive progress.

Like everyone we had to do things differently. We had to stay connected to our audiences and our people. The pandemic accelerated our transformative agenda and we continue to actively rethink the role of museums in our society. We want to connect people to their interests and ambitions in a deeper way.

We recognise that societal norms are constantly changing in terms of lifestyle, identity, the climate emergency and the economy; and that this requires us to change too. We have to be flexible within the societal context in which we operate as it’s our role to capture and reflect this place and our people.

We have worked incredibly hard to ensure our museum spaces have been a platform for better wellbeing, new skills development and a sense of enjoyment. We found new ways of maintaining these services whilst our museums were closed to offer people safe space, contemplation and escape through difficult times.

The closure of our museums provided the opportunity for new, innovative ways of connecting with and supporting people during the pandemic. Our education team overcame the challenges presented by lockdown and found new ways to engage with children and teachers. We developed a new programme delivery for schools called 'Museum on the Move' offering interactive workshops to schools via video link, each one connecting popular curriculum topics with key areas of our collections.

We are acutely aware that our museums can set an example in adapting to change, encouraging debate, promoting reconciliation and supporting diversity and sustainability.

We embrace the opportunity to celebrate key aspects of our work that demonstrate this, for example: showcasing the ongoing relevance and success of key programmes such as Making the Future and Reimagine Remake Replay; launching our Access For All initiative on reopening; developing new partnerships such as the conflict legacy network; and, being more proactive in stating our position and commitments to key issues within the sector such as Black Lives Matter, Decolonisation and Collections, Sites & Biodiversity Conservation.

As society re-emerged from lockdown and restrictions eased, we were able to re-open with confidence, with the safety of visitors paramount. Our Collecting the Past/Making the Future exhibition at Ulster Museum explored this year’s centenaries allowing our spaces to facilitate discussion and affect positive action in society by encouraging new perspectives.

The launch of Museum of Innovation, at the Ulster Transport Museum, encourages our visitors to connect with and celebrate our local pioneers of engineering and invention. This exhibition is designed to support STEM learning and skills development and inspire generations to come.

At Ulster Folk Museum we launched a partnership with the Conservation Volunteers that demonstrates how our volunteer programmes are inspiring people to connect with each other and make a meaningful contribution we are already proud of.

Together we now host a Green Gym in the grounds which will offer people the opportunity to better their physical and mental health while bringing some of the cottage gardens within the museum back to life, growing heritage fruit and vegetables.

It’s connectivity like this that positions National Museums NI as a vital part of our social infrastructure – and we must continue to adapt and innovate.

We are working hard to establish a museum infrastructure of the future – and this means we must extend the impact of our collections beyond our walls and fences.

Change takes time. It’s a journey. We know it is our responsibility to keep evolving. We are not about glass cases, ancient relics and stuffy galleries – we are about education, conversation and inspiration.

Come and see for yourself.

:: Kathryn Thomson is chief executive at National Museums NI

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