In the 44-year history of International Museum Day, no period of time has been more disruptive to the world’s cultural stewards than the past 18 months. Specifics of geography and local government policy aside, the challenges presented to cultural institutions by the pandemic are, in many ways, remarkably uniform: budgetary concerns, staff shortages, health and safety considerations connected with reopening, and, of course, a new urgency to leverage digital tools.  

At a stroke, the disappearance of physical museums as communal spaces forced a reconsideration of how best to engage audiences, both near and far, now and for the long-term. Fitting then that the International Council of Museums (ICOM) chose “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine” as its theme for International Museum Day, taking place today, May 18.

Though some institutions will be welcoming visitors onsite, with many waiving entrance fees, the majority of activity is taking place online, in keeping with the past year’s digital pivot. Offerings range from those aimed at museum professionals, such as curation tips from Estonian Museum of Natural History or conservation at London’s National Gallery, to playful and educational, such as a TikTok relay involving a host of international institutions, to the outright gamified with a special two-week gathering taking place inside Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. Helpfully, ICOM has gathered more than 3,000 online and offline activities on its interactive map.

International Museum Day 2021

Above: Animal Crossing’s limited-time IMD event invites players to visit museums across the island to collect unique stamps. Image: Animal Crossing on Twitter; Below: TikTok’s #MuseumMoment marathon features livestreams by more than 20 international museums. Image: TikTok

Ahead of International Museum Day, Jing Culture & Commerce connected with the leaders of Deutsches Historisches Museum, Ditsong Museums of South Africa, and Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art to learn about their preparations, how they’ve changed over the past year, and the transformations being prioritized for the future.

What does International Museum Day mean to you?

Deutsches Historisches Museum: The International Museum Day is a great opportunity to reach different audiences — those who know the DHM and new ones. By offering a free and varied digital program we hope to invite as many digital visitors from Germany and worldwide to engage with German history.

Ditsong Museums of South Africa: International Museum Day 2021 invites museums, their professionals and communities to create, imagine, and share new practices to (co-)create value, new business models for cultural institutions, and innovative solutions for the social, economic and environmental challenges of the present. Museums are struggling to recover from the pandemic and to create a valuable resource for people of all ages.

What activities and initiatives are you holding for IMD?

Smithsonian’s Open Access offers visitors access to almost 3 million objects in the museum’s holdings. Image: “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room,” interior decor by James McNeill Whistler, 1876 / Smithsonian Open Access

Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art: We will ask our virtual visitors to select their favorite works of art from the museum’s collections, articulating and sharing their voices and perspectives. For us, it entails a celebration of Smithsonian’s Open Access, a platform where images of many of our objects – as well of those of other Smithsonian museums – are available to be instantly downloaded, shared, and reused.

DMSA: The museums in Tshwane plan a weeklong program from May 17 to 23 that will see most museums open for free to the public during those days. This will give an opportunity for all South Africans to take their families to experience what museums offer, be it entertainment or education.

DHM: A digital program including free livestream guided tours through the current exhibition and the permanent collection. Moreover, we’re offering guided tours via telephone for visually impaired visitors as well as interactive “Multaka sessions“ in English: in which former refugees from Syria and the participants speak about the topics of flight and migration.

How are you reflecting on this year’s theme with an eye to the future?

SNMAA: The theme of this year’s International Museum Day resonates deeply with our strategic planning. As we look towards our forthcoming centennial year in 2023 and the museum’s second century, we are committed to accessibility and a visitor-centered approach to both virtual and onsite experiences. Our museum has had an internal Accessibility Task Force that worked tirelessly to ensure that the physical galleries comply with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards.


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