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How a Museum Survived the Pandemic

17 September 2020
The empty atrium of the Museum of Islamic Art. There are two large columns and a staircase with a large window in the back.
As a precautionary measure to ensure public safety, MIA, along with the other QM museums, were closed temporarily between March and July [Photo: Ali Alanssari]

The long-winding lines and crowded halls may have been a nuisance, but museums have always been bustling social and civic spaces. Until COVID-19 swept through and changed all that. According to a UNESCO report, the virus caused more than 85,000 museums worldwide to temporarily close. Now, as these cultural institutions slowly reopen their buildings to the public, they have to manoeuvre through a new frontier of reduced visitor numbers, increased safety precautions and numerous other post-COVID changes.

In March, Qatar Museums, in response to the COVID-19 situation, announced that all its museums were momentarily closed to the public as a precautionary measure.

“The whole lockdown came to MIA as a surprise, like to everyone else, and we were all in shock at first. We went home and thought that it may not take that long, but then it became very clear, very soon, that it would take much longer, so we had to adapt and also get organised.” Dr. Julia Gonnella, director of the Museum of Islamic Arts (MIA), said about the early days of the museum’s closure.


Empty library at the Museum of Islamic Art. Long tables and arched windows fill the background.
The pandemic caused 90% of museums worldwide to temporarily close their doors [Photo: Ali Alanssari]

In consultation with QM, the museum’s management team and staff came together in order to plan and implement new ways for them to operate remotely. Different teams around the museum had to readjust to not only meeting via Zoom, but also to working from afar, when some of their jobs were very hands-on. “For staff like the conservation team it was especially hard, since they really need to work on-site. Fortunately, we soon had remote EMU access (an online system used to catalogue the museum’s collection objects), which made it possible even for conservators to work from home as they were able to upgrade information on the collection.” Dr. Julia said.

The key to a successful lockdown was the seamless integration of technology into the day-to-day working practices of the staff. There were also new opportunities to bring more public programming online with the introduction of video tutorials, in lieu of onsite workshops, and virtual summer camps for all ages. “Our Learning and Outreach department became very creative and the results were astounding.” Dr. Julia said. It became an all-family affair as the different members of MIA’s team pitched in to create digital offerings for their audience. “The tour guides started producing films for Instagram in different languages, the library team was reading books live and the academic programmes team were creating online quizzes.” Dr. Julia explained.

People the world over experienced a rollercoaster of emotions as the virus took hold. From initial concern and worry at the changes wrought by the lockdown, to a feeling of frustration as the situation wore on for months. The museum’s staff was no different. “It’s very difficult being a director and not seeing people. I am someone who works very much on a personal level. Although it worked very well in principle, we had regular meetings and continuous exchange, it became much more difficult to see to all the different personal needs. The lock-down basically proved difficult for everyone for different reasons.” Dr. Julia reflected. Working mothers juggled working from home with the demands of childcare, and those living alone, really struggled with a growing sense of isolation.


A bird's eye view of a woman preparing to film an art tutorial
During the lockdown, MIA's staff refocused their efforts on online programming, such as producing art and craft tutorials for social media

While the museum was closed, MIA’s team was fortunately able to focus on finishing its critical planning for MIA’s ambitious redisplay of the museum’s collection. “We finalized all the gallery displays and the object choices. Basically, we were able to get the whole project ready for its implementation which was very gratifying for everyone”.

A big part of the lockdown also involved making sure the collection was protected at all times and that the museum was safeguarded. “Of course, you have to make sure everything is secure. Staff came in regularly to look at the storage [and] the objects in the permanent collection, in case there was water leakage, or other issues that had to be solved. We had a very strict rotation plan for this.”

With the museum’s reopening taking place on 2 August, MIA was also able to finally present its spring exhibition, A Falcon’s Eye, Tribute to Sheikh Saoud Al Thani. “We had 80% of the exhibition set-up when the lockdown halted everything.” The long delay meant that our specialist exhibition company and our guest curator had to return to their home countries and could not come back. “Still, our staff made it happen, considering all the special Corona measurements that were in place and the required social distancing, it was an amazing feat to finish setting up.” The team had to readjust their working methods in order to successfully complete the display with only a limited number of people being allowed into the museum at a given time. Once again digital technology saved the day as staff FaceTimed each other to verify the placement of objects and make sure the work was done correctly.


Two curators install a large photo book while wearing masks
The final installation of MIA's exhibition "A Falcon's Eye"

UNESCO’s report on museums in the face of COVID stated that as many as 10% of museums around the world that closed, may never reopen. For the ones that did, the biggest outstanding question is whether they have been changed forever. “I hope not. A museum for me, above all, is a physical meeting space. It is where people come to wander, exchange ideas, hang out and simply experience the entire space, so yes, I do hope we can come back to this, along with further expanding the new digital space we created.”

MIA, along with Mathaf and Fire Station are open once again to the public. Be sure to visit the exhibitions on show, such as Picasso’s Studios at Fire Station and a Falcon’s Eye at MIA. Purchase your tickets beforehand and check out our precautionary measures to help you prepare for your visit.

To keep up with everything MIA, follow the museum on Instagram and Facebook.


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