Museums in Slovenia show culture is positive and meaningful in the time of COVID-19

Kaja Širok is the Director of the National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia and a research fellow at the Faculty of Arts (Department for Sociology) in Ljubljana. A historian by training, her Ph.D. in Cultural studies focused on contested memories and identity making in the border areas. She discusses with us in this interview the impact of the pandemic crisis on culture and the mitigation of its effects. Ms Širok serves as a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) - Ethics Committee and the International Committee of Memorial Museums in Remembrance of the Victims of Public Crimes (ICMEMO). She is the president of the ICOM Slovenia and a member of the Academic Committee of the House of European History museum.

What are your roles and responsibilities when it comes to actions and response measures related to COVID-19?

My main concern remains preserving heritage and heritage awareness. It is crucial that quality work continues outside the museum’s walls and that we are able to create a safe environment for our staff and our visitors. 2020 has been a truly challenging year for culture – we have all been subject to the same global problems and the process of finding solutions was collaborative. Finding innovative ways to reach the wider public was crucial.

It is our responsibility to react to modern problems and find modern solutions, in my case to keep museums in touch with their users and to assume a more open position within society, as well as to perform our core task of heritage preservation. Museums were forced to adapt, and it is imperative that in these times, more than ever before, people see culture as something positive and meaningful.

How did you adjust your work to the COVID-19 situation and what were your first thoughts when the restriction measures were imposed?

At the start of the first global wave, 98% of all world museums closed their doors. Even though we stayed home, our work didn’t stop, and we quickly established new networks and lines of communication. As the lockdown started to ease its grip, our primary concern was to regain the trust of our visitors. They had to feel like their safety mattered. Museums have long been among the most trusted institutions in our society, and it is our duty to uphold that trust.

However, while safety is key, I am certain there are alternative ways in which our work can still be carried out, even in these times. It is a question of flexibility and willingness to adapt. COVID-19 has posed some specific challenges, and not every institution responded successfully: restructuring the workload, keeping an updated web presence, digital accessibility, a flexible programme – these were crucial to success in 2020.

During the lockdown period, we organised some online activities, which gave our audience an experience of the museum at home. We hosted a Comics Competition titled “Life in the time of Coronavirus”, for our users to share and illustrate how they were spending their time in confinement in comic book stories form. Participants shared their stories between 17 March and 1 May, and we announced the winners on 18 May 2020, the International Museum Day. After receiving 280 entries, a virtual exhibition on life during coronavirus was prepared and shared online.

A number of museums across Europe invited people to contribute their tile to the mosaic of history, and we similarly had an open call, “Slovenia and Corona: Your story is part of history too”. It was an invite for people to send stories and photos of their new private and professional lives as part of the Historical Collection Project to showcase what the pandemic meant for Slovenia. A selection of proposed objects would be included in the collection of the National Museum of Contemporary History for the future generations. An online gallery of photos and their stories is available on the museum’s official website.

Is there any particular moment during the COVID-19 response that stands out for you?

I feel that international solidarity between museums was key in our handling of the situation. We were quick to form national and international networks of collaboration. During the first lockdown, we held regular ZOOM sessions with other European colleagues that later evolved into webinars. After a while, international colleagues started attending, and the feeling of unity that developed from these collaborations was invaluable.

We fostered greater solidarity and opened our institutions to the public, and even if it was only on a virtual platform, it felt more real than ever. Never before has culture been so virtually accessible and so physically fragile. We were drawn together by the wish to give back to the public and to show everyone that in unity, we truly become stronger.

What is the biggest challenge (as a woman) that you faced or concern that you had while working on this?

I have immense respect for my colleagues who are mothers that work from home and also take care of their children and managing their home-schooling. It is a difficult situation in which women find themselves, fulfilling many concurrent roles, often at the cost of their personal health.

One of the biggest challenges is understanding the needs and the hardships of one’s colleagues and supporting them as much as possible. This includes reminding them to take time off and helping them when they run into trouble.

In the professional workplace, much like at home, I believe we are strongest when we listen to each other, especially in these troubling times, when the social wellbeing of so many is in a precarious position. In times of turmoil, it is the duty of a director to provide a stable environment, to remain informed about the epidemic and to provide support to the community.
Kaja Širok, Director of the National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia

From your own experience in this past year, what do you think is the one thing/issue/topic that should be addressed if we are to recover better?

This year has shown us that the role and work of museums has changed. The first sentence of the latest (now discarded) International Council of Museums (ICOM) definition of museums rings even more true in light of our new reality: “a democratic, inclusive, critical space for all voices, all stories, a place to understand history and build a better future.”

Museums must work in the best interests of the community and for the community. Culture and cultural goods must not be jeopardised and abused for political purposes. It is a question of our attitudes towards cultural production, knowledge and heritage. In my view, our chief goal is making knowledge accessible to all users, in a manner that is respectful towards all identities and heritage interpretations.

What are you personally committed to in the efforts towards recovery?

I see recovery as a comprehensive process. It is more than just recovering from the epidemic – it is the financial, political and social recovery of our society. Financial crises usually happen alongside political ones, and in many countries, the cracks are already starting to show. These tensions have a major impact on the long-term development of cultural policies.

Different countries have handled financial support for the cultural sector in different ways, but in many countries, the COVID-19 crisis was used as an excuse to lower government spending on culture, to instate more compliant directors and to just generally lower the standards of cultural services.

My personal goal is to act responsibly, and to insist on respecting the commitments of professionalism and ethics in the field of museums. To foster respect for our work and to promote professional independence.

Is there anyone who inspired you personally with words or action, in this period? I am most inspired by frontline workers fighting this COVID-19 virus such as doctors, medical staff, volunteers and everyone who makes daily sacrifices to save lives. I admire the women leaders who were able to lead their countries through this medical and economic crisis by listening to the needs and concerns of their citizens. I also found inspiration in musicians, actors or artists that managed to pull off concerts or performances this year.

Successful cultural events were few and far between, but each and every one of them carried great weight and emotional impact. Even in smaller doses, culture remains an essential part of who we are.

Photo credits

©Kaja Širok – portrait by Uroš Hočevar, DELO publishing

© National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia