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The role of museums in 2021

As with almost every sector, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted museums around the world. We might think of arts and culture as “nice to haves,” not necessarily “need to haves.” We can all recall a day wandering through a museum, art gallery, or science centre, and we’ve all missed being able to do that during the past year, or at least being able to do it with the spontaneous ease that we are used to. But while we know there are critical frontline services that are in desperate need of funding and attention, there are many valid reasons why we shouldn’t neglect the immense importance of those “nice to have” services that give us a sense of self, place, and connection.

The Exploration Place closed to the public on March 13, 2020. No one knew what would happen, how long we would be closed, what the next steps were. Suddenly, everyone was working from home, March break camps were cancelled, then summer camps, then fall programs. Galleries once bustling with people were eerily quiet and empty (save the chatter from Loki the magpie.) Programming either went virtual or was just not feasible at all. But even behind closed doors, the work of the museum has not stopped—if anything, it has multiplied, grown, and progressed. Now, a year later, as we catch a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, we have learned that in these rapidly changing and often turbulent times, museums’ work is more important than ever before. Over the decades, we have worked hard to provide reliable information and build public trust with strong multi-disciplinary work and relationship-building in our community. We continue to evolve our practices and adapt to our current reality, taking a lead role nationally and internationally in advocacy and raising the level of scientific and cultural literacy in the general population.

The primary function of museums has always been preserving our past and collecting our present stories to carry into the future. The Exploration Place’s collections vault is home to millions of photos, thousands of artifacts, and countless stories from our region. Every object has a story and a lesson to teach us. We learn from history so that when, inevitably, we face a cultural or social crisis, we can look to experience to know better what to do (or what not to do). We can see that the world has been in a similar place to the one we find ourselves in now, and if that isn’t reason enough to have faith that times of turmoil are not forever, I don’t know what is. Museums can give us perspective, and with perspective, maybe even unity and common ground.

As much as they are here for the enjoyment of the curious, museums can also make us uncomfortable. Museums are increasingly becoming a forum for difficult conversations, and confronting our past is how we learn and grow. We have responsibilities to strive towards Reconciliation with First Peoples, repatriate artifacts, and combat racism, intolerance, and misinformation. Organizations like ours must not only accept these responsibilities but embrace them head-on. Society has become highly divided, and this division inevitably comes down to our collective culture and where we see ourselves within it.

After all that we have experienced in the last year, we must think about the huge gap that would remain if we allowed the “nice to haves” to fade into history. Arts and culture will continue to connect us with each other and inform us about our place in the social dialogue. We must keep having conversations, even the uncomfortable ones, that inevitably evolve whenever we look closely at our past. We must continue to preserve and communicate our stories so that future generations can learn from them as we have. I look forward to sharing many of these stories with you, and we invite you to connect with us through our virtual programming and online collections database. But it really is the in-person experience that has shaped us as a museum, and all of us here at The Exploration Place look forward to welcoming you back when it is safe to do so. We are so grateful to our community for your support and contributions to the collective conversation over the decades, and we are excited to move forward together. Now is the time for progress.

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