As the world celebrates International Museums Day, we talk to four directors across the globe about loans and exhibitions, the future of blockbusters, donations, digital innovations, inclusivity, connectivity and ‘the duty to safeguard great art’
Director of the Hong Kong Museum of Art
‘As I speak, our museum is partially open. We closed in January, opened up for 10 days in March, then closed down again because of the second wave.
‘When we reopened for the second time, on the morning of 6 May, there was a queue outside: everyone seemed happy to have something to do apart from eating. When one man was asked why he had come, he said he wanted to see the largest painting that David Hockney has ever completed, Bigger Trees near Warter.
‘It’s on loan to us from the Tate, part of an exhibition of British landscapes. The show was installed last November and was supposed to be here for three months, but we can’t send it back right now, so it will now run till May. It’s a rare extended opportunity for Hong Kong people to see such works — and that’s a bright side.
Maria Mok, Director of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Photo: Courtesy of Hong Kong Museum of Art
‘Many of our visitors have been going online to look at art, of course, but what that gives them is a memory of a two-dimensional image.
‘The challenge for us will be to remind everyone that the true power of art consists in having contact with a space or an object or another human being, that the real experience is different from looking at a picture on Facebook. And that’s because you can immerse yourself in a painting on a wall in a way that is impossible to do with a picture on an iPhone.
‘Since we are among the first to reopen, I am sure that we will be sharing our insights’ — Maria Mok
‘As a museum director, one thing that I will take away from Coronavirus is a renewed sense of solidarity. People are reaching out to each other. In the run up to International Museums Day, I have been having all kinds of meetings with fellow museum directors in Europe and the Middle East and elsewhere.
‘Everyone seems eager to chat and exchange ideas. Since we are among the first to reopen I am sure that we will be sharing our insights — and our mistakes. This situation is not a competition, after all; we in the museum world are facing it together.’
Director of the National Gallery, London
‘This is a curious time for us, because we are so used to having visitors come in every day. But the circumstances are the same for just about every museum in the world. We are an online museum until we can reopen the doors on Trafalgar Square.
‘The only people going into the National Gallery are security and environmental technicians. We are monitoring the paintings remotely, and through twice-weekly visits by our head of conservation.
Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, London. Photo: © National Gallery, London
‘We can’t continue to restore pictures for now — you have to be in situ for that — but there is a lot of work that conservators can do without a retouching brush in hand. That includes updating archives, writing reports, preparing articles for publication or lectures. I am very keen that all that activity continues. We chose to keep everyone busy, and not to furlough any staff.
‘The example of the National Gallery during wartime — I am thinking of the Myra Hess [piano] concerts that took place during the Blitz and after — has been an inspiration for us. I have clearly seen the emotional attachment that people, including our own staff, have to the gallery.
‘What will be different? For one thing, fewer institutions will be doing big blockbuster shows’ — Gabriele Finaldi
‘There is a sense of a duty to safeguard great art: whether that art is kept in a slate quarry in North Wales, as during the war years, or in safe-keeping behind our own doors during this Covid-19 pandemic. Art has something to do with who we are as a people, the best of ourselves — and to be reminded of that is very important. Art also has a role in providing solace, in recalling better times and looking forward to a time when this will be over.
‘What will be different then? For one thing, fewer institutions will be doing big blockbuster shows. They are a valuable instrument for drawing new people in, showcasing new research, introducing new areas of art history. But traditionally, it is the local public that focuses on temporary shows, while the tourist audience homes in on the core collection.
‘I would find it a welcome outcome if that were to change — if our local audience in London and the UK came to re-appreciate the collection itself. Because right next to those temporary shows, we have a gallery of masterpieces that amount to a permanent blockbuster.’.................