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Monica Barni & Orlando Paris: Redesigning museum space in times of pandemic

"The analysis of data allowed us to classify the different ways in which museums responded to the Covid-19 emergency. We identified four macro-categories of responses: each one produced specific changes in the semiotic landscapes of museums and in the visitor experience."

The aim of our work is to analyse the impact of COVID19 in the cultural sector, and in particular in museums. Covid-19 has acted as magnifying glass on the role, structure and function of museums: they were forced to cope with the sudden closures – they were among the first structures forced to close, and the last to open again - and to react radically rethinking themselves, their spaces and visitor experience. The subject of our study are the strategies that museums had to implement in order to respond to the health crisis. The key questions we started with are as follows: How have healthcare emergency signage and protocols contributed to redefining museum spaces? How has the symbolic apparatus of the museum changed? How has visitor experience changed? Did the emergency succeed in stimulating a reflection on museum function in service of society even after the pandemic?


In our research, different methodologies of data collection and analysis were used. First of all we made a general mapping of the actions undertaken by Italian museums during the Covid-19 pandemic, through the analysis of the news regarding proposals and actions of the museums daily reported by the authoritative online magazine "Artribune", from March 2020 to April 2021. Following the results of this mapping, that allowed us to have an almost complete overview of the actions undertaken by Italian museums, we selected 14 museums and exhibition centres (public and private, in the North and in the South of Italy). Their websites and social media were analysed (La galleria degli Uffizi; Museo Leonardo da Vinci di Firenze; Palazzo Strozzi di Firenze; Palazzo Blu di Pisa; Le scuderie del Quirinale; MAXXI; MACRO; Museo Archeologico di Napoli; Santa Maria della Scala; Museo Egizio; Museo Nazionale del Cinema; Casa dei Tre Oci; Peggy Guggenheim Collection; Castello Rivoli). Afterwards we visited 8 museum spaces where we collected photographic material (La galleria degli Uffizi, Museo Leonardo da Vinci and Palazzo Strozzi in Firenze; Palazzo Blu in Pisa; Santa Maria della Scala in Siena; Le Scuderie del Quirinale and MAXXI in Roma; Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Napoli;) and finally we interviewed 3 museums’ Directors.


The analysis of data allowed us to classify the different ways in which museums responded to the Covid-19 emergency. We identified four macro-categories of responses: each one produced specific changes in the semiotic landscapes of museums and in the visitor experience.


1. A non-response: many museums (mainly small and civic museums) simply closed and stopped their activities during the pandemic. No changes were produced;

2. A bureaucratic response: some museums have responded by simply regulating the entrances and adding Covid-19 signage - both vertical and horizontal - to the exhibition itinerary (Figure 1).

Figure 1


We have observed that vertical signs are a combination of iconic visual signs and verbal languages, whereas horizontal signs are indicative signs. Furthermore, languages used in these signs are only Italian and sometimes English. As many languages were used in Italian museums, Covid 19 produced a step backwards in terms of multilingualism and internationalization of the cultural offer. As we will see, the visitor experience changed only in relation to the compulsory health protocols, and sometimes they were not followed at all (Figure 2)



Figure 2



3. A digital response: in the early phase of the pandemic, the first response of many museums was to implement their digital offer: digital tours, video insights, webinars and much more. The digital response was the most adopted by museums, although in very different forms. It produced changes transferring the visitor experience from real to digital and widening the possibilities of cultural participation.


4. Time- and/or site-specific artistic production: some museums have decided to propose their works of art outside: in public spaces, out of the museum. The works of art have invaded streets, squares, facades of buildings and became part of the semiotic urban landscape (Figure 3).

Figure 3


5. In terms of different degree of change in the space and the semiotic landscape and of closure/ openness to participation the four macro-categories of responses given by museums during the pandemic are represented in the following table.

Table 1


In the bureaucratic response (2) the changes in the semiotic landscapes consist of the addition of Covid -19 signs (outside and inside), but the possibilities of cultural participation are not increased. In contrast, the main feature of digital responses (3) is a widening of the possibilities of (intentional) cultural participation, for the general public and for the scholars (digital consultation of works and documents), both during the closure of museum and the re-opening. In the time- and site- specific art production response (2) the cultural experience is totally transformed: it becomes public and also unintentional; the art production becomes part of the urban semiotic landscape and can be enjoyed even by mere passers-by.

The four different macro-categories we defined highlight that there isn’t a definite answer to our research question: Did the emergency succeed in stimulating a reflection on museum function in service of society even after the pandemic?


In the lack of suggestions and recommendations at a national level, with the exception of the imposition of healthcare emergency protocols, each cultural institution reacted in different ways. Each reaction is strongly linked to the idea of function and aim of museums and of culture in general, that each Museum governance, and in particular, each Director share. Sometimes the opportunity of considering the Covid 19 emergency as an occasion to rebuild contact with the public and improve cultural participation was totally ignored. As you can see in Figure 4, in the recent renovation of one museum the captions are replaced close to the floor and written in a very small font, without attention in access and citizen participation.


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