Report on the Henry Arnhold Dresden Summer School 2020

At a distance: Culture stuck between quarantine and a new start


What challenges do cultural institutions face as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic? How does a closed museum establish its raison d'être? How can institutions position themselves in order to emerge stronger from the global crisis? The Henry Arnhold Dresden Summer School 2020 explored these questions under the heading "At a Distance: Culture stuck between quarantine and a new start".

On-site, digital, hybrid - this year, even the Summer School had to modify its formats. In addition to a panel discussion on-site at the Albertinum, the Summer School organized exciting digital workshops with contributions from renowned experts and alumni of past Summer Schools (see program).

Following a review of the state of affairs due to the pandemic by representatives of the partner institutions during the panel discussion, the workshops focused on the topics "Why do we need museums?", "Why do we need exhibitions?" and "Why do we need digitalization?". Subsequently, Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum in London, provided an international assessment of the situation.

Reflecting on the role and relevance of cultural institutions in times of lockdown has prompted many institutions to increasingly engage in fundamental strategic reflection. The museums' legitimization by the numbers of visitors is a central aspect that was addressed in all program points. How does an institution justify itself to its funding bodies if offers cannot be taken advantage of? What significance does digital reception have? When and how is a digital visit counted at all? Beyond mere numbers, there should be other relevance criteria to legitimize a museum: Scientific activities, provenance research, restoration activities, and digitization of collections continue to be conducted in closed museums, generating a constant added value for society.

During the last few months of the lockdown, the digitalization of cultural institutions has experienced a strong momentum. Digital tools enable works and content to be accessed, while at the same time creating incentives for on-site visits. Provided an institution has the appropriate time and financial resources and is planning well, it can design individualized packages for users. In this context, sensitivity is required when implementing digital projects with regard to legal and data protection issues as well as sustainability and continuing technical advancement. During the workshops, however, it became evident that the immediate implementation of digital offers puts a lot of pressure on the institutions and that the results were not always satisfactory if experience, professionalism or budgets were insufficient. Open source solutions developed independently of any location could be a suitable way of enabling in particular smaller institutions to offer their services.

Yet, at the same time, it is clear that the analog visit to a cultural site should not and cannot be replaced by digital solutions. The full houses after the reopening were clear evidence of this. The opportunity to meet and exchange ideas, as well as the festive moments at openings, must be made available again for both visitors and members of staff.

The Covid-19 disruption can be a good moment to consider an institution's mission statement - to self-reflect, sharpen priorities and goals, establish content strategies, and ensure the sustainability of the programs offered. One possible response could be hybrid formats, capable of linking a digital engagement with the physical cultural venue. In the future, exhibitions should be designed on two levels for both onsite and digital visitors. The joint development of formats with the participation of curators, designers, and experts in digitalization equally professionalizes the output in both museums and digital space.

Recordings of individual formats are available in the media library.