Collections Access in the time of COVID-19

Written by APRILLE P. TIJAM, Senior Manager for Exhibitions and Collections, Ayala Museum (Philippines, ITP Fellow 2019)

It is heartbreaking to hear that UNESCO recorded 85,000 museums closed down worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This pushed many museums to explore numerous ways to give their audiences continued access to museum collections and programs online. To find the best and safest way to allow audiences to enjoy the variety of experiences offered by these important institutions.

Fortunately, my museum has been working on a gradual yet steady process of the digitalization of our collection for years now. During this process, selections from our collection were already reaching out to virtual audiences through ASEMUS VCM (Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces), Google Art Project, Google Fashion Project, and the different social media platforms –Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Since March 2020, my colleagues and I have been on a Work-From-Home set-up. My museum is also undergoing renovations, which were put on hold for months now in compliance with the quarantine measures mandated by the Philippine government.   Under a COVID-19 pandemic mindset, my museum is now faced with the greater challenge on how to transpose an on-site experience and an existing online presence to a more engaging virtual experience.   It poses opportunities to revisit old, existing materials on past exhibitions, Collections Corner notes, videos such as ATIN: Stories from the Collections and IN FOCUS: Arts and Objects Explained, digital images, and look at potentials to make these useful, enjoyable, and most importantly, relevant in this time of pandemic.

As a Collections Manager, it is very interesting to see a myriad of possibilities for online access to our collection. It reaffirms that objects and artworks in our collection are indeed valuable resources for museum learning programs. My colleagues and I under the Collections unit continue to provide the Audience Development team, tasked with developing online programs, with the necessary support to source and use images and information from our collection. One very important aspect of my work is to ensure the proper use of digital images, in compliance with our agreements with lenders and donors and Philippine copyright laws.

One significant online offering celebrating the 2020 ICOM International Museums Day: Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion in May was Ayala Museums Kids Curate: Make Your Own Exhibit. This hands-on activity provided children with a role-playing opportunity—as a curator—to conceptualize an exhibition using pre-selected objects from the museum’s collection. In the process, they learnt more about Philippine pre-colonial culture and history.  It  was designed with a downloadable guide and kit for school children who have been under quarantine, away from friends, mostly spending time with android phones or laptops, and bored for months.  

Another interesting online program is Virtual Visits.  A 6-part annotated re-presentation of the exhibition Toward Abstraction: Fernando Zobel, originally showcased at the Third Floor Galleries of Ayala Museum (2018 -2019), which made its debut in May 2020. This highlighted Zobel’s interests as an artist, his contributions to Philippine art, his role in the establishment of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca, Spain, and his creative processes. More Virtual Visits featuring past exhibitions will be made available online soon.

With all the uncertainties in the world, we’ve made one thing certain in my museum – virtual access to its collections.  It is now our “new normal”.   This effort  ensures our  role as “advocates of Philippine art and culture through compelling encounters with the collections” then, now and for years to come.