Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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-May 18: Massachusetts biotechnology company Moderna announces that its potential COVID-19 vaccine showed promising early clinical trial results. President Trump has warned World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that the U.S. might permanently cut off funding to the organization due to its “repeated missteps” in the response to the coronavirus pandemic. A WHO independent oversight committee releases an interim report on the WHO response to COVID-19, noting “significant” progress in WHO’s health emergency management response since reforms implemented in 2016 but also recommending further reforms in some areas. President Trump announced Monday that he has been taking the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for about a week and a half as a preventative treatment against COVID-19.  The Navajo Nation overtakes New York and New Jersey as the part of the U.S. with the highest per capita coronavirus infection rate.

-May 19: All 50 states now starting to reopen economies. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declares a state of emergency in Midland County after two dams breached following heavy rains.

-May 20: Thirty-six thousand fewer people would have died of COVID-19 in the United States by early May if the country had started social distancing one week earlier in March than it did, according to Columbia University disease modelers. Ford closes two plants over COVID concerns.

From the cutting room floor...

“You know, there are estimates that 50% of museums could fold right now,” says Zachary Levine, the Director of Archival and Curatorial Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Not all museums are equipped for this digital transition crash course. 

Among the problems is just the mentality of museum directors and donors. “I think a lot of them are grappling with and will continue to grapple with the idea that they are operating on a ‘if you build it, they will come’ model.” Perhaps they believe that there’s enough of a felt need for what a cultural institution provides that a website with their exhibits on it will bring visitors. Levine cautions that it rarely works that way. “The successful programmings are really a lot of smaller scale meetings often where people can come and participate. It’s where they can be present and feel a part of it. In other words, the museums that are really going to be successful here are operating more and more as conveners around specific subject matter, but not as authorities.” 

This feels discouraging to me—that Americans thirst for entertainment so much more than information that even a great museum website won’t draw many visitors and even fewer patrons. But Levine doesn’t see it that way. “That feels like a big loss, and it is a big loss. But I think that it also [identifies] which institutions are important, resilient, and which institutions will leave a space for something new to come about. I don’t want to say that I’m hopeful but I think that there is the opportunity there for cultural organizations, museums, and art galleries that are able to work very differently from what we’ve seen in the past.” Even in the upcoming months, Levine thinks, museums will bounce back, and the smaller ones—provided they can come up with capital to make it through this period of lockdown—might fare even better, “because they have fewer people. So, that’s gonna mean prescribed routes in museums where you have to follow a certain path. It’s gonna mean much more ticketed times. It’s gonna probably mean very clear divisions of how the space is organized and how people can move around them. That’s going to happen at least moving forward in the next couple of years. I don’t think it is going to be permanent. I don’t think museums are going to stop.” 

If we expect just a kind of ‘show-and-tell,’ aren’t online collections enough? “Museums are the preservers of our history and our material culture and those collections have to go somewhere…” he shrugs. “Economically museums are actually relatively inexpensive compared to the economic benefits that they bring. Study after study shows the economic benefits of cultural institutions to cities and neighborhoods, and that they bring many many more dollars than they cost.” Besides, Levine says, in the wake of all this death and loss caused by coronavirus and the lockdowns, the role of museum will continue as always, “to help people cope with the world around them and to make sense of it. How I can make the world a better place?” It’s a question we all are going to want to have help answering after the year we’ve had so far. 

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Contributors' Voices

Levine, Zachary. Zoom Interview, by S. Cervino, May, 26, 2020.  

C-SPAN. President Trump Says He Is Taking Hydroxychloroquine, 2020.

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Americans of the Arts. “The COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers.” American For the Arts, May 18, 2020.
Branswell, Helen. “Vaccine Experts Say Moderna’s Covid-19 Data Leave Big Questions.” STAT (blog), May 18, 2020.
Goodluck, Kalen. “COVID-19 Impacts Every Corner of the Navajo Nation.” High Country News, May 19, 2020.
Hake, Monica, Adam Dewey, Emily Englehard, Angela Gallagher, Tom Summerfelt, Corey Malone-Smolla, and Tremaine Maebry. “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Local Food Insecurity.” Feeding America, May 19, 2020.
Mazzucato, Mariana, and Giulio Quaggiotto. “The Big Failure of Small Government.” Project Syndicate, May 19, 2020.
Lee, Morgan. “Outbreak on Edge of Navajo Nation Overwhelms Rural Hospital.” US News & World Report, May 19, 2020.
Laughlin, Nicholas. “Nearly 3 in 4 Americans Blame the Chinese Government for America’s High Death Count;” Morning Consult (blog), May 8, 2020.
Rob Smith. “The Case of Ahmaud Arbery Calls for Nuanced Reflection, Not Race-Baiting.” Human Events, May 19, 2020.
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Additional Links

* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.