For over forty years, since 1977, International Museum Day has been celebrated annually on May 18th. This year, 2020, marks the first time these celebrations took place wholly online all over the world—out of necessity rather than by design. The museums in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have had to similarly adjust their operations during the coronavirus pandemic, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi celebrating International Museum Day with an online panel on “Reimagining Museums” and Qatar Museums responding to this year’s theme of “diversity” by focusing on “Female Leaders” in the country’s culture scene. The GCC countries are home to unique cultural institutions that house unrivaled collections, including the Museum of Islamic Art, the National Museum of Qatar, and Mathaf in Doha, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Sharjah Art Foundation, Bahrain’s Arts Centre, and Dubai’s many modern art initiatives. Saudi Arabia too is beginning to display its wealth of cultural offerings after years of conservative disregard, and, along with recent art initiatives, is promoting “numerous heritage sites, with a number of them recognized by UNESCO such as Al Hail region and the Gate to Makkah.”
As highly regarded and popular public spaces in the GCC, museums and other cultural institutions were shut down as a measure of public safety during the COVID-19 outbreak “to prevent and contain the spread of the Coronavirus.” Like so many institutions, GCC museums and galleries have had to think of ways to stay relevant in this period of existential crisis and to offer the public some semblance of their former selves. There is no doubt that some of the few wins during the coronavirus pandemic were gained by institutions that were better equipped to move their operation online and to maintain communication with their audiences—and even gain new audiences—through digital platforms. Just as Zoom became a household name and the most popular platform for all types of meetings, whether professional or casual, many GCC museums have partnered with online platforms such as Google Arts and Culture to act as portals to a vast amount of the world’s cultural artifacts. Museum collections are now increasingly being made available for those with access to the necessary technology and cultural capital.
GCC museums are digitizing the architecture of their buildings to enable virtual tours as well as items in their collections for public consumption. Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, for example, is promoting an online initiative, CulturALL, in which “Abu Dhabi’s cultural centers, museums, landscapes, and initiatives reach their audiences by transforming physical offerings into virtual ones, allowing the public to learn, discover and enjoy culture online.” The Sharjah Art Foundation notes that its online program “allows audiences to find creative learning resources, stream award-winning films, access do-it-yourself (DIY) videos and listen to uniquely designed audio experiences, with much more to come.”
In some cases, the virtual experience is being promoted as more intimate than—and perhaps even superior to—the physical museum visit since “a collection of nearly 300 objects from MIA, Mathaf and NMoQ can be viewed through Google Arts & Culture in stunning detail which distance and physical limitation render it impossible to achieve even through actual museum visit.” The very language has changed regarding the museum experience; whereas once physical visits were encouraged as the “real” or “authentic” experience of a museum’s objects and collections, the unique attributes of the digital experience are now being highlighted. For instance, “the National Museum of Qatar, The Museum of Islamic Art, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art have each created a spotlight on the beauty and reverence of Arab art by offering a unique virtual experience through Google Arts & Culture. You may have physically seen these collections before through the barrier of a glass case, but through this platform, you can interact with the objects and artworks in a more intimate way.” Similarly, the management of the Louvre Abu Dhabi places its contemporary digital self as a node in the history of culture, stressing that “our museum is about universal connectivity; the artworks, artists, ideas and cultural movements that have connected humanity throughout history.”
At the height of the pandemic, while other institutions delayed or canceled their programs, Qatar Museums (QM) did the opposite. QM chose this time to promote two new museums that remain in the development phase: the Qatar Children’s Museum (QCM) and 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum, both of which used the pandemic period to promote a series of live entertainment, educational, and physical activities. While these museums have yet to welcome visitors into bricks and mortar facilities, many of their community outreach activities and educational programs have been launched online and have already found success among certain audiences. In fact, the virtual existence of the children’s museum has become a means of battling the social effects of the virus; the programs are “being launched before QCM even begins construction so as to aid families staying home during the ongoing novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak.” Qatar Museums recognizes that staying home in isolation, a vast majority of people are living their lives in digital space, and has thus begun building a visitor base ahead of the museum’s physical launch. Even as the pandemic has forced museums to change the way they operate, many online initiatives have been better able to target specific audiences and to have more direct contact and engagement.
Because of their already established online operations, museum gift shops became the most functional sectors of shuttered museums since they were still able to continue performing their roles in digital space. With access to wider national and international audiences, museum gift shops perhaps perform these communicating and profit-making tasks even better online than they did in the institution’s physical space. With few shopping options available during lockdown, museum merchandise becomes an attractive option for all those special occasions celebrated in quarantine. Qatar Museums’ online gift shop, for instance, promoted “boredom-busting games, science kits, and tools for little artists delivered directly to your door,” and encouraged customers to spend by offering “free delivery in Qatar with orders above QAR 200!” Once considered the “stepchild” of the museum, the gift shop has thrived during the pandemic.
Like its transformative effects on most other areas, COVID-19 has forced the institution of the museum to reimagine itself, its functions, and its relationship to its communities. During the spring of 2020, coronavirus lockdown measures instituted in countries all over the world meant that the traditional physical museum as we know it—that public temple expertly curated to accommodate centuries of history, art, and culture—suddenly became what many such institutions house: relics, things of the past. In recent years, the museum has endeavored to render itself as idealistically inclusive as possible, but, in recent months, it was no longer physically accessible—to anyone. During the pandemic, the museum downplayed what it once was—a traditional physical communal space—and instead urgently upgraded what it always promised it could be—an innovative virtual communal space.
Digitizing museum objects is a time-consuming and laborious task. For the most part, what has already been digitized and displayed online represents a fraction of a museum’s collections—a small example of what is on display, let alone the many other objects in storage. In the past, digitization of a museum’s objects was considered a secondary, and perhaps even nonessential activity. For museums that have initiated the process of digitally recording their objects, such cataloging is often opened to the public as voluntary and unpaid labor. In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has necessitated acknowledging digitization as being the museum’s most essential activity. Museums all over the world have been faced with the absolute need to make their cultural cache available online, and, importantly, to pay for the labor of those doing the work. For many institutions, the pandemic has fast-tracked many of their plans for increased digital cataloging in order to not only weather the current pandemic but any such future incidents.
Article by Suzi Mirgani, Assistant Director for Publications at CIRS.
- Read more about the COVID Project here.
- Read about the CIRS research project Art and Cultural Production in the GCC here.
 International Council of Museums (ICOM), “International Museum Day,” 2020, https://icom.museum/en/our-actions/events/international-museum-day.
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 Manuel Rabaté, “Message from Museum Director,” Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2020, www.louvreabudhabi.ae/en/Message%20from%20Museum%20Director.
 Qatar Museums, Qatar_museums, “Children’s Museum,” Instagram, April 1, 2020, www.instagram.com/p/B-cpqsvjU1m.
 Qatar Children’s Museum Launches Family Workshops on Social Media,” Gulf Times, April 1, 2020, www.gulf-times.com/story/659762/Qatar-Children-s-Museum-launches-family-….
 Qatar Museums, Instagram, www.instagram.com/p/B_AK4VrnWNg.
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 Kirsten Holmes, “Experiential Learning or Exploitation? Volunteering for Work Experience in the UK Museums Sector,” Museum Management and Curatorship 21, no. 3 (2006): 240–253.