Digital Response to Disaster Situation:Exploring the case of museums in China and the coronavirus crisis.

The Virus Scare

On the last day of 2019 Chinese authorities alerted World Health Organization (WHO) about multiple cases of pneumonia from the port city of Wuhan with a population of about 11 million people.

According to the WHO website ‘Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses found in both animals and humans. Some infect people and are known to cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).’

In January , WHO scientists identified a novel coronavirus (CoV) as a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. The new, or “novel” coronavirus, now called 2019-nCoV, that had not been previously detected before the outbreak that was reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

The outbreak has now been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO), based on the possible effects the virus could have if it spreads to countries with weaker healthcare systems. The declaration was the sixth time that the measure has been invoked since the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. As of February 5th 2020, about 490 people have died due to same with no known cure yet against the virus. Against this backdrop expectedly travel restrictions and lock downs of public spaces were actioned throughout China to control the spread of the virus.

The Spring Festival in Jan-Feb

Chinese Lanterns

In China the Spring Festival or New Year is celebrated either in January or February because the Chinese use a lunar calendar, which is based on the movement of the moon. The week long festivities provide for the longest holiday period in China. According to information available online on 27 January, the General Office of the State Council of China, one of the top governing bodies of the People’s Republic, officially declared a nation-wide extension on the New Year holiday and the postponement of the coming spring semester. The Office extended the previously scheduled public holiday from 30 January to 2 February, while it said school openings for the spring semester will be announced in the future

The forced cancellation and postponement of events

Cultural organizations and museums are typically at the forefront of the festivities around this time. A number of new exhibitions, museum openings and launches etc. are often planned around this time to leverage the festive mood in the country. This year due to the virus scare, almost all of those events and festivities have had to be cancelled or postponed indefinitely for now.

The ‘Cultural’ Response from the Authorities

The National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) has responded to the situation by indicating that the China Cultural Relics News Agency has plans to release a number of museums’ online exhibition contents on the “Museum Online Exhibition Platform”. “Museum Online Exhibition Platform” has been commissioned by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage to build a public platform for online exhibitions based on the government website of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

As per an official press release on January 27, the enlarged meeting of the party group of the State Administration of Cultural Relics specifically stated: “Encourage cultural relic museum institutions in various places to carry out online exhibitions based on local conditions, encourage the use of existing cultural digital resources to launch online exhibitions as appropriate, and provide safe and convenient online services to the public.”

Here are 2 examples of online initiatives in this context.

The Palace Museum in China had grand plans to celebrate the Spring Festival but was forced to declare a temporary closure on Jan 23 due to the coronavirus crisis. However thanks to their online exhibition highlighting how the festival was celebrated in Ancient China, visitors can now immerse themsleves into this festival exhibit virtualy. The exhibitions highlights details of rituals connected with the Spring Festival.

National Museum in Beijing is also showcasing online it’s latest exhibition ‘The Journey Back Home – An Exhibition of Chinese Artifacts Repatriated from Italy.’

The online display uses rich media, motion graphics, zoom functions to create and simulate the sense of an actual museum visit.

Digital : A Long Term Solution to Empty Museums Beyond the Crisis

It is important to recognize that even without the coronavirus crisis China had a ‘problem of plenty’. A Forbes article talks about the phenomenon of ghost museums or empty museums amidst a steady focus on building more museums in China in the last few years. This inspite of the National Museum in Beijing being the 2nd most visited museum in the world in 2019, just behind the Louvre.

The article mentions, ‘China is in the middle of an all-out museum building boom that is unparalleled in history. As part of a broad central government initiative, thousands of museums have been built across the country over the past decade, with a staggering 451 being opened in 2012 alone. Shanghai even went as far as opening two different art museums directly across the river from each other on the same day. Like many other sectors of China’s unprecedented economic rise, the obsessive drive to build more and more cultural facilities has resulted in a conspicuous dearth of exhibits, let alone demand from people wanting to visit them — leaving hundreds of massive, often opulent, and architecturally iconic buildings sitting underused or even completely empty today.’

An article in also echoes a similar thought. It says ‘There were 349 museums in China in 1978; that number is now estimated to over 5,100. Through the country’s museum-building boom of the past two decades, a new museum has been basically opening every day — and sometimes several museums a day: 451 new institutions were inaugurated in 2012, for instance. It remains one of the government’s priorities: The National Cultural Heritage Administration’s work plan for 2016-2020 aims to have one museum for every 250,000 people built by 2020. Yet after their grand opening, many of those museums remain virtually empty.”

It is also pertinent to remember that China has one of the longest work hours in corporate history. The Chinese people often refer to their working hours as ‘996’ to indicate working from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. This probably leaves them with little time for visiting cultural organizations and museum exhibits.

Thus digital solutions may need to be explored not just as a crisis response but as a long term solution to not just addressing the issue of ghost museums but also ensuring that the rich cultural heritage of the nation is documented and stored digitally for future generations.

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