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The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Arts drew large crowds in February, 2019, for an exhibition entitled Unbroken, by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, which included the installation 'Vases with Refugee Motif as a Pillar' (left) and a triptych of photographs, 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn' (right).Moe Doiron

Kelvin Browne is the Executive Director & CEO of the Gardiner Museum and previously vice-president at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Walking around a museum that’s been closed for over two months isn’t like being there after hours; it’s not merely dark, it’s lifeless. There’s no echo of the day’s activity, no chance of bumping into a colleague working late, no crates in shipping for incoming or outgoing loans, no sign of an event that’s happened or is about to, be it a lecture or fundraiser. It’s unsettling to go to the Gardiner Museum, where I’m the director -- on the few occasions I do -- and face this new reality. It’s particularly poignant after the large crowds generated by Ai Weiwei’s exhibition last year. It’s a moment that makes you question your assumptions about museums in ways that don’t occur to you when you’re busy day-to-day working in one.

My walkabout reinforced that a museum without visitors is just an attractive warehouse – it could be filled with precious artifacts, impeccably displayed, but it’s still not much more than carefully tended storage. What about the rare, beautiful or historic stuff in museums -- does it matter if visitors don’t ever see them, other than virtually? It’s a question occasionally asked about the vast quantity of artifacts or specimens in storage for posterity or research purposes. These can be materials too fragile for any kind of display, for instance, textiles or photographs that curators permit only to exist in the dark. Of course, all these stored paintings, sculptures and whatnot matter, we presume -- that’s why they’ve been collected -- but they’re not alive, not really part of anyone’s life anymore. Maybe some things are meant to be ephemeral and celebrated as they disappear. The rebuttal is, of course, that these things might not matter now, but they could later. And so they may. But my meandering through the Gardiner was a demonstration that our objects, without the curiosity or admiration of our visitors, are anxious things, knowing that their survival depends on being cared about, and there is suddenly no one looking at them. Without visitors, the purpose of collecting becomes rather academic.

Real people in real galleries matter for another reason. Money. There’s been a welcome flurry of government support, some of it now extending to September. The challenge is that, for museums such as the Gardiner, where public funding is always less than 20 per cent of our total budget, our ability to earn revenue is paramount. This is quite different than institutions that receive twice that from public sources. For us, it’s not about more government funding, it’s about potentially having to rethink the business model of our museum if people don’t return to rent spaces for weddings or children can’t come for classes or camp.

If people aren’t coming to us, more than ever we must go to them. Hence the enthusiasm of cultural workers during the pandemic for presenting their institutions virtually to the world. And perhaps a few are also feeling liberated from the burden of old-fashioned bricks and mortar or, as I’ve heard it phrased, the oppression of colonialist museum constructs. We’re doing wonderful things online at the Gardiner as we stay engaged with our audience. I’m sure the communication skills we’re honing will be useful in the future. But this isn’t a visit to the Gardiner, or participation in a ceramics class, or dining at Clay, or all the other real things we want to encourage at the Museum. In fact, it’s the opposite for me of how I see the Gardiner’s unique role. We want to be a respite from an increasingly virtual world. More hands in clay, fewer on a keyboard. Now that we’re closed, I feel subsumed by the virtual.

Most insist technology enhances a museum visit, and to think otherwise labels you a Luddite. But technology can erode the supremacy of the object for a visitor. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised about my reaction to the Gardiner’s transformation to a virtual destination, as I’ve never been a technology acolyte. I like artifacts well-lit and well-labeled, usually assembled in an obvious chronology or embedded in a narrative that’s not difficult to grasp as you walk through a gallery. Dramatic backdrops, informative photographs, succinct text, discreet videos, maybe an audio guide or, even better, a great docent tour, all good. As well, an easy connection to your cell for more information. But the foundation of a visit are remarkable things shown in a vivid manner so that visitors are transported by an artist’s vision or to a different time and place, with a consequence other than a visitor leaves with good selfie.

Technology can relegate real things to existing as props in a story that’s otherwise entertainment and diversion. A virtual museum is taking us further from the imperative of real things towards the acceptance of the equivalency of online experience and direct experience. What about reaching new audiences online, always a touted benefit of the virtual museum? The more a museum depends on the virtual, perhaps the greater the opportunity to be dismissed by those that have no interest; they miss the visceral power that compels engagement even from the indifferent.

So I miss our audience for all sorts of reasons, even when I assumed it was a brief estrangement. As I believe the urgency for human contact will never disappear, I trust that the necessity to have an in-person relationship with our creations will endure too. But when people do return after their online interlude, I’m not confident they will have a museum experience that convinces skeptics that reality trumps the virtual: checking arrows on the floor rather than following their instincts, getting upset at accidently bumping into another visitor, and so on. Clay classes with people sitting a couple feet from each other? I don’t think so. Careful, precisely timed visits and angst about too much spontaneity, especially by children? That’s a dreadful future for a museum.

Kelvin Browne is the Executive Director & CEO of the Gardiner Museum and previously vice-president at the Royal Ontario Museum.

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