by Karen Loh
The International Museum Day’s theme this year, “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine” is appropriate in view of the current pandemic and its uncertain future. This article is about the Museum Volunteers’ (MV) experience as we navigated the series of lockdowns, which began on 18 March, 2020.
Volunteering at the National Museum (Muzium Negara)
Having a guide whilst visiting a museum, be it a docent, audio guide or booklet enhances a visitor’s experience. For one hour or so, the visitor journeys with the guide and travels back in time to a particular period through the displays and information boards on vitrines in the gallery. The artefacts are brought to life by factual stories imparted to them as they navigate that display. For example, the visitor does not only marvel at a 560-year-old shipwrecked celadon dish but follows its journey from the time it was first fired at Sisachanalai, Thailand. It was then loaded onto a ship destined for markets in South East Asia but the ship tragically sunk during a great storm. There it lay for 540 years until a marine archaeologist recovered it and it made its way to a museum vitrine, on display, having never served its original purpose.
How then can a visitor experience this journey with their docent when the guided tours have been cancelled and the museums closed due to the pandemic? Even as museums reopen to the public, the number of visitors is limited and guided tours restricted to fewer numbers in a tour group.
New Norm – finding a suitable video-conferencing/virtual meeting platform
When we began the first MCO on 18 March 2020, many of us took the lockdown as an opportunity to rest, spring clean, read the books we had kept aside to read later and indulge in television. Muzium Negara was closed indefinitely and all of our volunteer activities at the museum with it. As the two-week lockdown became four weeks then eight and so on, it became clear to the MV committee that some changes had to be made. We could not afford to sit around and wait for the museum to reopen. The first thing the committee had to do was to learn how to hold our meetings in some alternate mode like video-conferencing platforms. We had to adapt to today’s technology. The second thing was to get the members acquainted with the new technology. We all had to learn how to join an online meeting, turning on or muting our microphone, turning our video camera on or off and screen share, all of which are done effortlessly today. Not willing to pay for any service then, we looked at different video-conferencing platforms besides Zoom (which provided only 40-minutes free service), like Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Meet where subscription payment was not required. While many of the video-conferencing platforms provide similar service, the committee decided to subscribe to Zoom after the second lockdown (MCO 2.0).
The MVs who did not stop working – Research and Focus Teams
Although all of our guided tours and school programme activities came to a halt, our Research team and Focus team continued to operate. The Research team have a deadline to produce Muzings, which is MV’s annual digest. A draft copy of Muzings has to be submitted to JMM for approval before the end of every year until 2024. Besides discussing our articles and trying to solve problems in sourcing for research material, we also held in-house presentations online. This proved to be another learning curve as those who have done this would tell you that speaking to a computer screen with everybody else muted and video camera turned off is a very lonely experience.
The Focus team rolled out their first webinar in July 2020. We hosted the presentation from the IT lab in JMM with assistance from the IT technicians, using JMM’s Skype for business platform. The talk was given in-person by the speaker along with the Focus team present at the IT lab to our attendees online. Though the lab was limited to six people due to SOP, I think this little bit of human presence boosted the speaker’s morale. We also used the extra half hour before the start of a talk to interact with our members online. MCO 2.0 prompted us to subscribe to a video-conferencing platform. All talks from then on were conducted remotely. In retrospect, using a video-conferencing platform has been beneficial to the MV, for not only online meetings and webinars but also reaching out to speakers who do not live in the Klang valley. This has been the positive side of the pandemic. The Focus team and Research team have been able to reach out to speakers from around the world (taking into account the time difference of course). Seminars or conferences, which we had to travel to, to attend previously, could now be attended virtually in the comfort of our homes. It has certainly lessened our carbon footprint.
Interactive Projects at Muzium Negara – new forms of cultural experience
There were months in between the lockdowns when the museum was reopened. MVs used this opportunity to complete their training programme, which had been put on hold since 2019. Other projects such as the following were introduced:
i) One-hour recorded tours by volunteer guides in four languages: English, French, Japanese & Korean. The tours highlight selected artefacts in each of the four galleries in the museum. The recorded tours have been posted on Muzium Negara’s Facebook page.
ii) Shorter five-minute recorded talks on one artefact in the museum in the language of the guide’s choice. These talks are posted on Muzium Negara’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
iii) Proposed MV activities at the museum after the lockdown: cooking and paper-folding demonstrations as well as a beginner’s level language course.
Looking forward – Results and Discussion
i) Sustainability of the volunteer training programme. In order to become a museum volunteer guide, all docents have to attend the 16-week MV training programme. This programme was cancelled for 2020 and 2021; the programme for 2022 is still under consideration. The training programme involves a classroom style in-person attendance and museum walk-throughs. While online training has not been explored, another option would be lesser numbers per session.
ii) Whether the museum is able to provide MV guides with face shields, face masks and/or wireless tour guide portable audio system for group tours.
There is a global vaccination programme going on with governments providing Covid vaccines for free. As more people are vaccinated, will our volunteer guides resume their duties when the museum reopens? Will visitors need to produce vaccine passports? If not, will our guides feel safe conducting in-person tours? Vice-versa, will visitors join a guided tour? Is the use of audio-guided tours the best alternative? There is still much to be discussed and decided.