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Museums must not be overlooked in pandemic recovery, UNESCO chief warns

Woman at Musée d'Orsay in Paris gazes at  Vincent Van Gogh painting from 1888.
UN News/Elizabeth Scaffidi
Woman at Musée d'Orsay in Paris gazes at Vincent Van Gogh painting from 1888.

Museums must not be overlooked in pandemic recovery, UNESCO chief warns

Culture and Education

Faced with alarming and extended closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s museums are of “fundamental importance” to reviving cultural life and preserving our shared heritage “in all its diversity”, said the UN cultural agency chief on Tuesday.  

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According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the entire cultural sector has been severely affected by the pandemic, with museums hit particularly hard. 

Based on data from 104,000 museums provided by 87 Member States, UNESCO has published a new update on its report from last year, Museums around the world in the face of COVID-19

The newly published report estimates that in 2020, nearly 90 per cent of museums had been closed for an average of 155 days, and since the beginning of 2021, many have had to shut their doors again, due to surging infection rates. 

This has resulted in a 70 per cent drop in attendance on average, and a 40 to 60 per cent decline in revenue compared to 2019, the agency reports. 

“In the midst of the crisis, we must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of ensuring access to culture and conserving our shared heritage in all its diversity”, said UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay. 

Essential roles 

Museums preserve heritage for future generations, promote lifelong learning, provide equal access to culture and spread the values on which humanity is based, said UNESCO.  

Their function in terms of social inclusion is also vital to help keep societies together, and they play a major role in both the creative and tourism industries. 

The authors also draw attention to traditional educational activities that are hosted by museums, such as school visits, guided tours and workshops. 

Key COVID impacts on museums 

  • For some institutions concerned, revenues have dropped up to 80 per cent compared to 2019. 

  • In 50 per cent of the States surveyed, public subsidies for national institutions have decreased, some very significantly. 

  • Some 43 per cent of museums faced closures in the first quarter of 2021. 

“The place we reserve for museums in pandemic recovery policies says a great deal about the societal values we wish to uphold”, Ms. Azoulay reminded. 

Moving into the future 

Recommendations made in Museums around the world include the implementation of a large-scale digitization policy for collections, along with measures to support more education, training and research. 

Moreover, the authors uphold the need for cooperation between museums at an international level and for public authorities to provide financial support throughout the pandemic and to strengthen cultures in the future, making the institutions more resilient. 

“States have an essential role to play in supporting museums in this difficult period, through an ambitious cultural policy, not only to guarantee their survival but to prepare them for the future”, underscored the UNESCO chief.