Over the past 20 years, the museum sector has witnessed a significant rise of touring exhibitions across the world. Dedicated touring teams emerged in major museums and touring exhibitions increasingly became a lucrative part of museums’ activity, a sign of the sector’s ability to be more resilient and an affirmation of its capacity to build strong international brands. It also played a great part in demonstrating the growing role of museums as a much-needed tool of soft power in response to the fragmented and uncertain world that emerged in the first two decades of the 21st century. This activity of touring and exchange was not completely new; indeed, exchanges across borders and cultures constitute the DNA of the museum sector and has, to a large extent, shaped it. However, these exchanges accelerated and were more formally structured as a business activity over the past 20 years due to the combination of a “museum boom”, in particular in the Middle East and Far East with a surge of new buildings searching for content, and new demands on established museums to generate new income streams and contribute to raising the national and international profiles of their cities and/or countries.
Suddenly in March 2020, the COVID-19 crisis brought this booming activity to a sudden and global pause: objects were stranded across the globe, exhibition programmes put on hold and staff on furlough. 10 months in and after a series of lockdowns, closures and re-openings, we launched the first iteration of Culture Connect’s Cultural Dialogue Survey dedicated to the future of touring exhibitions and conducted this survey in collaboration with Teo, the Touring Exhibitions Organisation. Our ambition was to consult those who make touring possible day-in and day-out to assess the global museum touring community’s mindset in the wake of this unprecedented crisis. Moreover, we wanted to explore how they were anticipating the future of touring, especially in connection with cross-cultural dialogues which have formed a critical part of the development of this museum activity worldwide.
The survey ran from 3 December 2020 to 5 February 2021 and received responses from colleagues from nearly all continents and from all aspects of touring. As you will see in the report published on 31 March 2021, the result is a snapshot of initial directions about what the future might look like, taken 10 months into the pandemic.
The findings are organised around three main emerging trends:
- A touring exhibition community that remains overall confident
- An activity that retains an international outlook and is increasingly perceived as a key tool of soft power
- In the face of new challenges, a sector that sees the timid emergence of new practices
As outlined in the report further research would be useful to complete the picture. We hope, nonetheless, that this first mapping will provide the museum touring community with useful insights, helpful food for thought as well as opportunities to open a constructive global dialogue to collectively imagine the future of touring exhibitions and start answering, as our context of globalisation is being put into question, the following questions: How can ideas and cultural dialogues continue when circulation of people and objects are being challenged by lockdowns and environmental considerations? What role might touring exhibitions be able to play for cultural institutions and their audiences in that context and in the future?
Overall, what transpires from this first snapshot is a touring exhibition community that, first and foremost, remains confident. This optimism is not, however, a blind optimism. The challenges ahead are clearly acknowledged: in particular, funding cuts, reduced exhibition programmes and ongoing travel restrictions are seen as major roadblocks to overcome in the near future. But this optimism lies, it seems, in the strong belief that touring exhibitions can effectively contribute to ongoing cultural dialogues across borders and to the diversification of audiences at a time when international exchanges are put into question. It also lies in the perception that touring exhibitions can provide an effective way of creating fresh content with fewer resources.
Resilience is the other dimension that emerges from this research. The touring exhibitions community does not seem to be calling for a drastic transformation but has demonstrated that rethinking, reimagining and recalibrating will be necessary to shape the future of the sector. A future that has started to call for more options when it comes to collaboration models; an increased appeal for object-light exhibitions and more sustainable practices; a bit of thinking outside the box when it comes to hosting venues with an anticipated increase of unconventional places such as outdoor spaces and shopping malls; and finally, innovative practices such as virtual couriering and blueprint exhibitions.
Lastly, some respondents stressed the desire to bridge the gap between the global and the local. Suggestions evolved around the notion that, while importing content and concept from abroad, you could involve local talents (e.g. local artists and technicians) to respond to it. Although this wasn’t a major trend in the survey, we are very interested in exploring this further given the new horizon of opportunities it opens for collaborating internationally enabling richer and multi-layered connections and, possibly, offering solutions to make the touring practice more sustainable. Our experience at Culture Connect during this past year has started to show us that one of the key challenges for the cultural sector moving forward will be to find the right balance between these two dimensions – global and local – to invent a sustainable path that ensures the ongoing circulation of ideas across borders, a vital engine of creativity and cultural developments across space and time.
The coming months remain uncertain, and as we acknowledge the challenges faced and solutions sought by individuals and organisations, it is crucial to maintain a wider understanding of the touring exhibitions community’s opinions as drivers of and for the sector. We therefore intend to revisit these trends, after a year of travel restrictions being lifted, to continue to map the flexibility of thought that this pandemic has required, and to provide an opportunity to listen, share, and shape the future together.